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Can High Schools Require Official Approval for Prom Dresses?

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on April 21, 2015 1:14 PM

The prom dress. Not even choosing a college induces the same amount of angst, apprehension, and possible elation for the high school female. The mere worry of duplicate dresses has spawned online databases and dibs industries.

At least one school had added another layer of stress on the dress decision. Eisenhower Senior High School in Houston, Texas initially posted a notice requiring all female prom attendees to submit photos of themselves in their dress for prior approval. This was probably not a well-thought-out plan.

Prom Policy

As of April 19th, the Prom 2014-2015 page on Eisenhower's school website read:

"All girls, Eisenhower student or not, must send in a photo of themselves in their prom dress (front & back) to be approved before they purchase it. The email must also include full name & student ID. They can send photos in to ikeprom@aldine-isd.org."

However, according to the Houston Chronicle, those sentences have since been removed from the website. The Chronicle also reports that the photos would have been reviewed by "two senior class women representatives" who would then "give feedback to girls if their attire was deemed inappropriate."

Apparently the policy was scrubbed soon after inquiries to the Aldine Independent School District.

Potential Problems

For the most part, schools are afforded a great deal of latitude when it comes to fashioning a school dress code. Courts have consistently held that students' free speech rights are limited in the school setting, especially when it comes to clothing. Prom is a school function, and schools already have strict guidelines on prom dresses, so it's likely that the policies on dress approval would be upheld in court.

A Pennsylvania Catholic school also caught flack last month for requiring photos and approval prior to students purchasing prom tickets. Private schools have even more freedom to control student fashion, as constitutional free speech protections don't apply to private institutions.

Most likely, Eisenhower backed off the photo policy for practical concerns. Having a protocol that required photo documentation, email, and response all in the time between trying on a dress and purchasing it (for give or take 800 students) doesn't seem logistically sound. And apparently having students make the final decisions on dress approval is not a good look. Finally, centering strict controls only on female students and having no apparent privacy controls for the required pictures added an additional set of legal questions and problems.

In general, dress codes for prom are probably OK, legally speaking. But mandating photo submission, predicating attendance on prior approval, and relying on peer on peer review creates practical problems that likely would've ended up in a lawsuit.

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