Outrageous and Rebellious:
legal issues affecting students' dress and appearance
By: Clair Trainor*
No one will deny the symbolic significance of dress. From the spiked hair and safety pins of the 70’s
punks to the ultra-loose clothing of the 90’s skaties, dress communicates. Over the last year
YouthLaw Tino Rangatiratanga Taitamariki has dealt with about sixty enquiries from different parts of
the country about school dress and appearance rules. Accordingly it is clear this is an issue of some
importance to students, and thus their families. Perhaps this is not surprising when we consider the
various limits imposed on young people’s independence by family and the State; dress can take on
symbolic significance as an area of personal expression.
This paper will examine the balance between a school's authority to make rules relating to students'
dress and appearance and students' and their families' entitlement to manage this personal
appearance. The focus will be on state and integrated schools, with some discussion of private
The extent of school boards’ authority to make rules under section 72 of the Education Act 1989 will
be considered as will the various statutory and general law provisions impacting on this. The case of
Edwards v Onehunga High School Board and Another will be examined and the thesis put forward
that this case would be narrowly applied today in light of the development of human rights based law
since the 1970's. Factors such as the greater autonomy of school boards and increased community
involvement under the "Tomorrow's Schools" framework will be raised as will the extent of the
requirement to consult.
A comparison will be made with the United States case law in this area. United States jurisprudence
provides sufficient case law to identify patterns relating to the manner in which matters have been
approached in that country. Of course this has no power to bind or even persuade our New Zealand