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 Ask the Attorney with John Brower, J.D.

Question: My son who attends a special and regular education classes at a public school where he is required to wear a school "uniform"? My son is very overweight and short due to growth hormone deficiency that requires his clothes to be specially tailored for him. He is also developmentally delayed, and he is legally blind. My question is – can a school force a student to wear a uniform?

Answer: When parents challenge uniform policies they generally do not do so claiming a financial burden, but by claiming a violation of a constitutional right (speech, religion, expression, due process, etc.) While the laws of any particular state may provide more protection than the US Constitution, most federal and state courts have held that a public school district's mandatory school uniform policy is rationally related to the state’s legitimate interest in fostering the education of its children. The courts have agreed that uniforms improve student safety, decrease socio-economic tensions, increase attendance, and reduce dropout rates. Therefore, they do not violate most constitutional rights.

However, as some rights could be violated (an example would be forcing a Muslim women to remove her head covering or a Jewish boy to remove his head covering) the courts have also held that a district needs to consider an individual student’s situation via a policy that allows a parent to make a case why their child should be allowed to “opt out” of the requirement. As IDEA can generally trump quit a few laws and regulations, I would also expect that IF a student’s IEP noted that a needed accommodation was to exempt the student from the uniform policy, most school administrators would also accept that IEP Team decision as justification to allow the student to “opt out”.

While cost could also be the basis to “opt out”, I would suspect that since it is a parent’s legal obligation to clothe their minor children for school, unless a parent can show a gross discrepancy between the normal costs of their child’s clothing and a school uniform they would have a hard time justifying an exemption based on financial considerations. While the “free” part of a FAPE does relate to some school expenses, in my experience it does not excuse the parent from paying for their child’s every day living expenses, such as clothing, food, shelter, or health care.

To appropriately address this type of issue, a parent needs to obtain a copy of the school’s written policy, and assuming it has an appeal or “opt out” process, use that process to obtain a final decision. It may also make sense to convene an IEP Team meeting, as they also are the appropriate group to address any school policy that adversely affect an IDEA eligible child’s education. Finally, a parent may also wish to contact your state Protection and Advocacy Services organization, as they may have more information as to the application of this policy to disabled students in your state.

John F. Brower, JD
Education Law Center, PLLC

Education Law Center, PLLC · 810-227-9850 · 

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