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Virginia school district considers ban on cross-dressing

A Virginia school district is considering a ban on cross-dressing by students to minimize what administrators say are “safety risks, disruptions and distractions.”

The Suffolk School Board studied the proposal at a meeting Thursday night, but members did not vote on it. The proposal explicitly bans “clothing worn by a student that is not in keeping with a student’s gender and causes a disruption and/or distracts others from the educational process or poses a health or safety concern.”

School board attorney Wendell Waller urged members to review concerns regarding the proposed restrictions. Waller said the new dress code was not intended as an outright ban on certain clothing, according to The Virginian-Pilot.

"This is going to be a challenging thing to do," he said. "But ... it can be done."

School district representative Bethanne Bradshaw told msnbc.com that Board Vice Chairwoman Thelma Hinton first raised concerns about students’ cross-dressing. Hinton mentioned reports of male students dressed in feminine clothing having to use a faculty restroom because they felt threatened by their classmates.

Hinton told WAVY-TV the problem was brought to her attention by teachers. She said she knows of several male students who were wearing makeup, wigs and dresses to class.

"My main concern is [the] safety of those individuals," Hinton told WAVY.

In February 2008, 15-year-old Lawrence King from Oxnard, Calif., who occasionally wore jewelry, high-heeled boots and makeup to school, was shot to death in class by another student. Prosecutors deemed the shooting a hate crime.

ACLU: 'Unlawful and unfair'
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia said that, rather than banning the “nonconforming behavior,” schools should instead address the bullying or harassment. In a letter to the school board, Rebecca Glenberg, legal director of the ACLU of Virginia, called the gender-related dress restriction “unlawful and unfair to students.”

The ACLU believes that, while schools may impose a requirement of proper attire, “to mandate dress based on notions that girls must wear one type of clothing and boys another is impermissible.”

In the letter, Glenberg also brings up a recent case in a Mississippi public school that refused to publish in its yearbook the senior portrait of a female student wearing a tuxedo. The ACLU sued the school in August 2010. As part of the settlement, Copiah County School District decided to ditch gender-specific outfits for senior portraits and instead require all students to wear a cap and gown.

Diane Ehrensaft, a Bay Area psychologist who studies gender and child development, told msnbc.com that the proposed ban is “a subtle form of harassment” and the school district should focus instead on monitoring bullying.

“They should do education about gender instead,” emphasizing empathy and understanding, Ehrensaft said. She said that when nonconforming students don’t feel safe or accepted at school, their sense of anxiety, anger and depression may increase.

“To blame the victim by saying you can’t dress that way anymore is inappropriate,” Ehrensaft said.

The fact that the proposed ban on cross-dressing is included in a dress code that would also prohibit short skirts and sagging pants suggests that administrators believe students who cross dress are trying to be provocative, Ehrensaft said.

Those are apples and oranges, she added, saying that cross-dressing is a “healthy variation on gender” that shouldn’t be policed.

A national study of high school students from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network found LGBT students were more likely to be bullied than straight students. Using that data and a survey of 2,400 California students, University of Arizona professor Stephen Russell compiled a 2009 report that shows 45 percent of lesbian or bisexual female  students in California had been bullied because they were not “as feminine as other girls” compared to 20 percent of straight girls. For male students, the survey found 62 percent of gay or bisexuals had been bullied for not being “as masculine as other guys” compared to 30 percent of straight males.

Along with banning clothing “not in keeping with a student’s gender,” the Suffolk proposal aims to prohibit “sexually suggestive or revealing attire,” spandex, ripped clothes, sagging pants, short skirts, sleepwear, open-toed shoes, sunglasses, head coverings unless worn for religious or medical purposes, and clothes advertising alcohol or illegal substances.

According to The Virginian Pilot, no other school district in the southeastern region of South Hampton Roads includes a cross-dressing policy in its student dress code.

Suffolk Public Schools serves more than 14,000 students in 19 schools, including three high schools.

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