Idaho district dress code discriminates against Latino students, complaint says

The American Civil Liberties Union is requesting a federal investigation into the Nampa School District in Idaho for implementing a "discriminatory dress code" that it alleges targets and discriminates against Latino students.

In an email Thursday, a spokesperson for the Justice Department confirmed that the Civil Rights Division's Educational Opportunities Section has received a complaint from the ACLU against the school district, about 40% of whose students are Latino. The spokesperson would not comment further.

The ACLU alleges the Nampa School District, near Boise, is violating students' freedom of expression, due process and civil rights by informally enforcing a dress code that deems items known to have cultural significance in some Latino communities to be “gang related attire.”

They include clothing resembling the cholo style, which is distinctively Mexican American, as well as Catholic rosaries and the image of a black Aztec eagle known as "La Huelga," a symbol that is also the logo of the United Farm Workers, which was founded by labor and civil rights leader Cesar Chavez.

Latino students are also punished for "wearing clothes that all students commonly wear without issue, like red or blue clothing, based only on vague assertions of gang dress prohibitions," the complaint says. Red and blue also happen to be the colors of some of the schools in the district, including Nampa High School.

"Having to remove items that have a very important cultural and religious significance for them, that has a very big impact on their identity and their education," said Erica Rodarte, a legal fellow at the ACLU of Idaho.

A spokesperson, Kathleen Tuck, said in an email that the school district is “aware of the ACLU complaint and is awaiting advice from legal counsel.”

Tuck also shared copies of the district’s most up-to-date student dress code and gang activity policies. They use broad language and do not explicitly prohibit students from wearing specific items or colors.

The ACLU said in the complaint that in practice, numerous unwritten policies are "established through informal consultation with law enforcement" to allow for "additional rules and disciplinary consequences to be assigned to students on an ad hoc and individual basis."

Rodarte and ACLU staff members have spoken to dozens of Latino families affected by such policies in the state, including a mother of two identified only by her first name, Enedina.

Enedina, a longtime Nampa resident, told the ACLU her son has been targeted for alleged gang affiliation since he was in elementary school based solely on his racial identity and his attire — depriving him of having a bandanna with the Mexican flag on it, wearing a red rosary or wearing a shirt that had red on it. Her son, who is on the autism spectrum, missed school several times and feels constantly under surveillance, Enedina said.

In a statement following the report, the school district touted its "strong and proud partnership with our local police department," which has supported and trained school district staff members, and its "successful track record in curbing gang violence in our schools."

Tuck said district staff members also receive other kinds of anti-bullying and cultural sensitivity training every year.

"We want to emphasize that at no point have we endorsed or supported any practices that discriminate against any of our students," the statement reads. "The Nampa School District continues to strive for excellence for all students, including our Hispanic and Latinx students and families."

Two of the Latino parents cited in the complaint said enforcing such policies creates a "hostile environment," ultimately forcing their children to enroll in charter schools outside the district. Both parents are identified by pseudonyms.

Enforcing such policies fosters a culture that results in Latino students' being disproportionately disciplined, according to the ACLU.

The complaint says Latino students are suspended at rates higher than would be expected for their student population while white students are consistently suspended at rates lower than would be expected.

"That's a big discrepancy, and that's a lot of missed class time and educational opportunities," said Rodarte, the lead author of a report last month arguing that school gang dress codes have negatively affected Idaho Latino students since the 1990s, including alienating them from school.

The complaint asks the Justice Department not only to investigate the school district's actions but also to take necessary steps to remedy any unlawful conduct and monitor future compliance by the district.

The Justice Department in the past has found specific remedies for those unfairly affected by policies, Rodarte said. "We're really looking forward to the Department of Justice taking this up and hopefully choose to open an investigation," she said.

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