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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, April 27, 2002

Baldwin High senior fights graduation dress code

By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Education Writer

Ivy Ka'anana doesn't like dresses.

She doesn't own any dresses.

And she doesn't want to buy a dress to wear at the graduation ceremony for Maui's Baldwin High School.

But she must have one if she wants to walk across that stage to receive her diploma.

Ka'anana has been denied permission to flout the school's graduation dress code, which requires that girls wear dresses and boys wear slacks at the May 31 commencement ceremony. She wants to wear a nice pair of slacks underneath the traditional cap and gown.

Now the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawai'i is stepping in and offering to file a lawsuit on her behalf against Baldwin High.

"The dress code is extremely old-fashioned," said Brent White, ACLU legal director. "It's stuck in the 1950s and it's time to come into 2002. I'm hopeful the state will come to its sense and issue a policy. It's not particularly scandalous for a woman to not want to wear a dress."

White sent a letter yesterday morning to Baldwin High Principal Stephen Yamada, requesting a change to the school's graduation dress code within five working days. Otherwise, the ACLU will sue on the basis of gender discrimination.

The Department of Education has already referred the situation to the attorney general's office.

White said there is no compelling government interest that would make it constitutional to treat men and women differently in the graduation dress code. Workplaces have already acknowledged that women cannot be required to wear dresses, he noted. "My suggestion is that Mr. Yamada should wear a dress," White said.

But the dresses-only rule for women is common at Hawai'i high school graduations.

Sandra Kurata, vice principal at Campbell High School, said the more formal clothes give the ceremonies a sense of decorum.

"It's just so they all look nice," she said. "It's so everything looks as dignified as possible. As far as I know, all the girls wear dresses and the boys wear pants and nobody seems to mind."

Girls at Campbell must wear white dresses and white shoes so they will match their white caps and gowns. The boys wear white shirts with black pants and black shoes. The DOE allows schools to come up with their own dress codes, and if they wish, school uniforms.

"Graduation ceremonies are more of a privilege than a right, and there are certain expectations that need to be met," spokesman Greg Knudsen said. "The issue centers around a school's authority to treat commencement as a voluntary activity that can be subject to any set of requirements. This is the school's right to set certain conditions at a graduation ceremony. It doesn't affect the right to achieve a diploma or graduate."

Waipahu High tells its students to follow the school's regular dress code at graduation, but doesn't worry about whether or not girls wear dresses. School officials say they just don't want to see off-the-shoulder dresses, spaghetti straps or belly buttons at the ceremony. This year at Castle High, girls will wear white caps, gowns, dresses and shoes. Boys will wear maroon caps and gowns with white shirts and black pants and shoes.

"Women wear certain things and men wear different things, even down to the shoes," Principal Meredith Maeda said. "The students vote at the beginning of the year."