Region 8 Student Challenges Graduation Dress Policy

May 27, 2004 -- Posted at 7:42 p.m. CDT

DONIPHAN -- A Region 8 student refuses to wear a dress to her 8th grade graduation, bringing a school's unwritten policy to an end.  Heather Williams was just another student in her class of 120 when she graduated from Doniphan Jr. High last Friday.  However, she was the only girl to ever wear pants and walk through the ceremony.

"Girls should not have to wear dresses to be able to do something big," said Williams.
The school has an unwritten policy that says girls must wear skirts or dresses for graduation.  Williams' mother Tracie Turner contacted the American Civil Liberties Union in St. Louis for help.
"The student was told that she would not be allowed to participate in any graduation activities unless she was wearing a dress. Not only would she not be able to walk in the processional, but she would not be able to sit with her fellow graduates and they would not even read her name at graduation. Essentially erasing her from the roll of graduates," said Denise Lieberman of the ACLU.
Heather's mother called the school after receiving a parent's note on May 3rd.
"Their response was that they had always done it and they could not change this late in the year or they would have total chaos and that girls just looked prettier in dresses," said Tuner.
For years women have been fighting for their rights and Heather Williams says that's all she was really trying to do was stand up for herself, and the ACLU agreed.
"We felt that the school's policy sent a message that even though Heather met all the academic requirements to graduate she wasn't fit to graduate from Doniphan Middle School unless she was wearing a dress. We just felt that was a tragic message to send not just to Heather but to all girls," said Lieberman.
The school eventually changed the policy for Heather, but says it was not because of legal action from the ACLU.
Superintendent Dr. Steve Bounds said, "There were some extenuating circumstances that I really can't go into detail on. Some issues involving the young lady in the past and that's why we made the exception to our policy for this particular graduation ceremony."
But Heather's mother says it was a lesson learned.
"I wanted to follow through and make sure that Heather knew that she did have rights, especially as a female and she does have rights and she can stand up and fight for them," said Turner.

Williams said, "A long time ago, girls didn't have a choice at all. We didn't get to vote or anything and since we have more rights now, we should be able to express our rights."

But will the policy change in the future?
"We don't really anticipate any major changes to the policy. The policy is legally sound. It's an option for the students, they are not required to participate in the graduation ceremony, so it's more of a privilege than a right, so to speak," said Dr. Bounds.

And so next year's graduates may have to skirt the issue again.  Right now the ACLU says they do not plan to drop Williams' lawsuit, but will continue to pressure the Doniphan Middle School to change their policy.