LAWRENCE — On Tuesday, Isabel and Natalie Garcia wore khaki pants to school.
While it may have seemed like an innocuous fashion choice amid the dozens of other students wearing khaki pants at Lawrence Family Development Charter School that day, the 13-year-old Garcia twins were breaking the school's dress code.
Seventh- and eighth-grade girls at the charter school are supposed to wear a uniform consisting of a white button-down blouse, a navy blue blazer – with school emblem – and a plaid skirt. In the winter, classified by the school as Dec. 1 through March 31, girls in those grades are allowed to wear khaki pants, the same as their male peers wear year-round.
As the calendar changed to April this week, the seventh-grade Garcia girls were supposed to put away their khaki pants and wear their skirts exclusively for the rest of the school year.
But the girls, and a number of their peers, believe they shouldn't be forced to wear skirts again just because an "outdated" policy dictates it's the appropriate season. Instead, they want all students to be able to choose whether they want to wear pants or skirts, year-round.
So the Garcias wore their khaki pants to school Tuesday to protest the school's dress code and call for a gender-neutral clothing policy to be enacted. They said they were joined by about three dozen girls, 13-year-old Nayely Mencia among them.
“We want to show the school that girls should have the right of wearing pants or skirts throughout the school year,” Mencia, a seventh-grade student, said.
Students began organizing their protest last week, collecting about 200 signatures over a few days from students in fifth- through eighth-grades who want to change the school's 23-year-old policy. They presented the petition to school administration Tuesday.
Susan Lyons, administrative assistant to the superintendent, said the administration would review the petition and submit copies to the school's Board of Trustees at a meeting on April 11.
Along with sporting pants Tuesday, some of the girls wore handmade pins that said “My body, my choice” and “I have the right to wear pants.”
Some of their male peers joined in the protest as well, wearing the girls' uniform skirts to class.
While some teachers were supportive of the students' efforts, others were not, the girls said. Administrators attempted to have some of the girls call their parents to bring in skirts, and some teachers tried to force male students to take off the skirts, the students said.
“It's just pants, I shouldn't be fighting for pants,” Natalie Garcia said, a tinge of exasperation creeping into her voice.
Along with the petition, Natalie Garcia also wrote a letter to administrators and the school's Board of Trustees calling for change and citing state law about students' right to personal dress to back her up. In the letter, she wrote of how students are sometimes more comfortable in pants than skirts, and that they sometimes complain about having to wear skirts when it's cold.
“It seems that the vast majority of female students would prefer to wear pants during the whole academic school year,” she wrote.
She also called for a gender-neutral uniform to protect the rights of transgender students, who may identify differently than the gender on their birth certificates and would want to dress accordingly.
“I think what we are doing is important,” she said, adding, “Society is starting to progress with gender biases and (our) school should move along with it.”
Emmanuel Guerrero, 13, a fellow seventh-grader, expressed support for his female peers Tuesday.
“This is New England, I don't think you should have to wear skirts in the winter,” he said, adding that he wants to help the cause.
The students plan to continue their fight at the board meeting next week.
“You don't wait for change, you make the change,” Isabel Garcia said.
Follow Lisa Kashinsky on Twitter @lisakashinsky.