Declo High School building

Declo High School

(COURTESY PHOTO)

From fighting school segregation to protecting free speech to exposing government torture programs, the American Civil Liberties Union has a long and noble history of safeguarding our civil rights.

But hounding the Cassia County School District over multiple yet-to-be-proven allegations of discrimination isn’t winning the group many fans in southern Idaho.

On Tuesday, the ACLU of Idaho lobbed another bomb at the district. It sent press releases to media and warnings to superintendents across the state over a note Declo High School gave to graduating seniors. The note asked girls to wear dresses or skirts and boys to don slacks and a tie for the commencement ceremony.

That, the ACLU says, amounts to discrimination because it implies that girls aren’t allowed to wear pants and boys aren’t allowed to wear dresses. By reinforcing gender stereotypes, the district is running afoul of state and federal laws.

“These are the kinds of things that you look at and just shake your head,” said Richard Eppink, legal director for the ACLU of Idaho.

We support a student’s right to wear whatever he pleases, but the heart of the issue isn’t social norms. It’s the law, and the dress code almost certainly wouldn’t hold up on court. The district erred in how it worded the note.

Still, we’re far from convinced the note is proof there’s a culture of discrimination in Cassia County schools. It’s hard to believe the school or the district acted maliciously. They simply want students to look spiffy for one of the most important moments of their lives.

If the ACLU’s aim was truly to curb discrimination, the group’s approach to solving the problem was terribly misguided. The district didn’t even know the ACLU had a problem with the dress code until contacted for a response by the Times-News on Tuesday.

The ACLU would have been better served to contact the district directly about its concerns – not wait for educators to read about the allegations in the next day’s newspaper.

This smacks of a smear campaign against the district over another case.

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The backdrop here is Declo High School senior Sierra Norman and her mother, Janeil Norman. They filed a complaint with the ACLU of Idaho in October after Sierra was barred from running for student body president because school officials said she was taking too many dual-credit classes to qualify as a full-time student.

The ACLU is involved in that case, too, and is threatening to sue if the district doesn’t change policies the group says led to the discrimination against Norman.

Cassia County School District is under the microscope until the Norman case is resolved. It should be especially concerned now with any policy that might even hint at discrimination, whether intentional or not, and the dress code note was a brainless mistake.

But the ACLU’s response has been tacky, at best. It wants to stop potential discrimination, and we believe the district does, too. Once both parties realize that, perhaps they can actually begin working together to protect students.

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