School officials have suspended an eighth grader at Anderson County Junior/Senior High School after he refused to remove his Vera Bradley “purse.” Skyler Davis, 13, was reportedly called to the Assistant Principal’s office and told to either remove the bag or face suspension. Davis refused, and the school sent him home.
As we have seen in other situations, timing and shifting rationales are suspicious factors in this dress code enforcement. According to Davis’s outraged mother, Leslie Willis, he had been wearing the bag since August without issue. Meanwhile, Anderson County School District Superintendent Don Blome explained the rule: “all students, whether male or female, are prevented from having bags, purses, satchels and backpacks in the core classrooms like English and math.” No gender discrimination here! All bags are banned equally. Davis’s mother, meanwhile, insists that the student handbook contains no mention of bags or purses, noting: “Skyler has been going to school since August with that same Very Bradley bag on, hasn’t taken it off. What is the problem?”
Perhaps the problem had nothing to do with the bag. With his mother’s support, Skyler returned to school, wearing the bag, and was again suspended. This time, school administrators reportedly told him he had never been suspended for wearing the bag, but in fact for “foul language.” Willis says she was told that “the suspension wouldn’t be lifted until Skyler stops wearing the purse.”
A few constitutional issues are raised here: gender discrimination (girls can wear purses; boys cannot) and freedom of expression (Davis claims to express himself through his bag). The school might counter by showing a rule of equal application to female and male students and, as explained in Dressing Constitutionally, “[attire] bearing words or symbols is much more likely to meet the expressive threshold necessary to invoke First Amendment protections.” Davis, however, might note how enforcement of a dress code often serves as a proxy for enforcement of expressive and gender norms. And a hopeful sign: the support of his mother and many others, including Vera Bradley. Perhaps sensing opportunity, the company has offered Davis words of support — and products.