A Constitutional Right for Prom? Or the Right to Fair Treatment in Public Schools?

salon_prom_interior_luggage-scaledThe senior prom usually allows students to dress up and mingle with their classmates and chaperones. Often this is the last chance that some students will get to hang out with classmates before they graduate. Yet some students at L.W. Higgins High School (“Higgins”) in Jefferson Parish alleged they were discriminated against when they were denied entry to their school’s prom.

In 2008, twenty-two students and their parents filed a lawsuit against the Jefferson Parish School Board, Judy Gardner, and Germain Gilson, claiming they were denied entry to their school’s senior prom in violation of their rights. Specifically, they claimed they had a constitutional right to attend their prom and the dress code for which they were barred entry was applied discriminately and arbitrarily. 

Ms. Gilson, the principal at Higgins, stated in her defense the school had issued handbooks to all students in Jefferson Parish, which included both a uniform dress code for formal events which in turn dictated the dress code policy for the senior prom at Higgins. Further, Ms. Gilson claimed that at the event itself, alterations and shawls were made available for students whose attire did not fit the proscribed dress code. 

Ms. Gardner, a teacher at Higgins, was responsible for admitting students at the event. In her affidavit, she was instructed to look at pictures of certain dresses and determine whether she would have been allowed entry to the event. When confronted with one dress that student Rebecca Frickey had worn, Ms. Gardner claimed that she would not have permitted a student wearing it to enter the prom. However, in her affidavit, Frickey stated that she had been allowed into the dance wearing that dress. 

The Jefferson Parish School Board, Ms. Gardner, and Ms. Gilson filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing the students could not demonstrate they had a constitutional right to attend their prom, the dress code was illegal, or the dress code was unequally applied. In response, the students and their parents admitted there existed no specific right to attend a prom and the dress code was legal but the unequal enforcement of the dress code amounted to discrimination. The District Court agreed with the School Board and its employees, ruling in favor of summary judgment. 

On appeal to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals of Louisiana, several legal issues were raised. Firstly, it was affirmed the dress code passed by the School Board and clarified by Higgins was legal under Louisiana law La. R.S. 17:416.7, which permits parish school boards to enact dress codes for their students. Further, the Court of Appeal looked to the requirements of a case to be removed before trial through summary judgment. Under Louisiana law, summary judgment is allowed before a trial when it has been determined there is no dispute about material fact that would lead a court or jury to decide the case in any other way. See Pouncy v. Winn-Dixie La., Inc. The non-moving party may then present evidence there is, in fact, a dispute about the facts that could lead to a different outcome. La. C.C.P. art. 966(D).

Looking at the case at hand, the Court of Appeal determined there was a dispute of fact as to whether or not the dress code was applied to everyone attending the prom or whether the staff at Higgins applied it unevenly. The Court of Appeal stated the laws and regulations of the State of Louisiana are valid when applied equally. If they are not applied equally, they run afoul of the equal protection requirements in both the Louisiana State Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Estay v. Lafourche Parish School Bd

In light of the disputed facts surrounding the equal application of the formal dress code, the Court of Appeal reversed the lower court’s decision and remanded the case for the courts to determine if the unequal application of the dress code violated the students’ equal protection rights. While no constitutional right to attend prom was established, this court’s decision to reopen the case to more fact-finding may give students more opportunity to attend a prom that is free of unequally enforced dress codes.  


Author: Colin McGinness

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