A federal judge ruled late Friday evening that the Harrison County School District can prohibit a 17-year-old transgender girl from attending her graduation Saturday unless she dresses in attire designated for boys, the Sun Herald’s Margaret Baker reported.
U.S. District Court Judge Taylor McNeel issued the ruling after hours of testimony from the Harrison Central High School senior and school district officials. Former President Donald Trump appointed the conservative judge to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi in 2020.
“The court’s decision to uphold the school district’s explicit discrimination of our client is deeply disappointing and concerning,” the ACLU of Mississippi responded in a Twitter thread this morning. “Our client should be focused on celebrating this life milestone alongside her friends and loved ones. Instead, this ruling casts shame and humiliation on a day that should be focused on joy and pride. All Mississippi students should have the right and autonomy to be who they are—not who judges and school officials think they should be.”
The family of a 17-year-old transgender Harrison Central High School senior is suing in federal court after school district officials told her she will have to wear male attire to her graduation Saturday or will not be allowed to participate in the occasion.
“On May 9, 2023—less than two weeks before graduation day, Defendants informed Plaintiff L.B. that she could not attend or participate in her high school graduation ceremony while wearing a dress and heeled shoes,” says a complaint the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi on Thursday.
“Defendants based this instruction on the HCHS gender-based dress code policy for graduation, which provides that girls must wear a white dress and dress shoes and that boys must wear a white button-down shirt, black dress pants, black dress shoes, and a tie or bowtie,” the complaint continues.
“Defendants instructed that L.B. must dress in accordance with her sex assigned at birth—in other words, that L.B. must dress in accordance with the stereotypical male standards, even though she entered high school as a girl and has lived every aspect of her high school career as a girl.
The complaint lists the Harrison County School District, Harrison County School Board, Harrison County School District Superintendent Mitchell King, and Harrison Central High School Principal Kelly Fuller as defendants. The plaintiffs accuse them of violating L.B.’s rights to equal protection under the 14th Amendment, her rights under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and her right to freedom of expression under the 1st Amendment.
In the complaint, the ACLU says L.B. “has worn dresses, skirts, and other traditionally feminine clothing items without issue or repercussion, including during in-person classes, school-sponsored events and programs, and extracurricular activities” during the past four years of high school.
“Defendants’ sudden decision to prohibit L.B. from wearing dresses and heeled shoes now, during the final and perhaps most important event of her high school career, serves no legitimate interest or justification,” the document says.
The complaint says L.B. purchased a white formal dress and shoes online for the graduation ceremony in March, following school customs. But on May 4, an assistant principal told her there was a “matter” she would need to discuss with the administration soon.
“Days later, just last week—on May 9, 2023, Defendant Fuller called L.B. to the principal’s office to ask what she planned to wear to graduation,” the document says. “L.B. replied that she planned to wear a dress. Defendant Fuller said that L.B. could not wear a dress and that L.B. would need to wear what the boys are wearing. Defendant Fuller also informed L.B. that the request to meet with L.B. was prompted by Defendant King, who had recently called and asked what the transgender students would wear to graduation.
“During this meeting, L.B. felt extremely upset, embarrassed, and distressed about being singled out and instructed that she would not be allowed to wear a dress at her high school graduation. Following the meeting, L.B. began crying and contacted her mother,” the complaint continues.
“On May 10, 2023, L.B.’s mother, Samantha Brown, called Defendant King to request clarification on the School District’s dress code policy for graduation. During this call, Defendant King said that L.B. ‘is still a boy’ and that ‘he needs to wear pants, socks, and shoes, like a boy.’ Ms. Brown asked what would happen if L.B. wore a dress to the ceremony, and Defendant King stated that she would not be allowed to participate.”
The Mississippi Free Press called Harrison County Central High School and asked to speak with Fuller this morning, but a representative in the office said “there’s no comment.” Calls to the school district office went unanswered.
The ACLU is asking the court to enter a temporary restraining order or permanent injunction blocking the school from punishing L.B. for wearing a dress and heeled shoes to graduation. A federal judge is hearing the case today; L.B.’s graduation is scheduled for tomorrow at 6:30 p.m.
In a statement with the ACLU, L.B. defended her right to dress in feminine clothing at graduation.
“My graduation is supposed to be a moment of pride and celebration and school officials want to turn it into a moment of humiliation and shame,” she said. “The clothing I’ve chosen is fully appropriate for the ceremony and the superintendent’s objections to it are entirely unfair to myself, my family, and all transgender students like me. I have the right to celebrate my graduation as who I am, not who anyone else wants me to be.”
Correction: This story originally said Judge Sul Ozerden was hearing the case; he recused himself and Judge Taylor McNeel heard the case instead.