The decision of the Peetri Basic School in Rae parish, Harju County that elementary school girls cannot wear pants to school caused one parent to seek the help of the equality commissioner. Commissioner Liisa Pakosta finds that the school is discriminating against girls, and that families can apply for moral damages of up to €10,000 should the situation persist.
“This matter was raised on Facebook by a single parent in fall,” said Principal Luule Niinesalu. The school had to report to Commissioner Pakosta after the parent contacted her office.
“We have had a school uniform since 2009, and I cannot tell you why that one parent found it to be an issue as I have not met with them,” Niinesalu said. The school's board of trustees discussed the requirement of wearing a skirt after the commissioner's address but did not deem it necessary to change school policy.
“Parents support us,” the principal said. Niinesalu received Pakosta's official reply that accuses the school of discrimination on March 8 and has not had time to read it yet.
She admitted she doesn't understand the parent's inquiry. “The school has an image: we have our own logo, flag, chime of bells, and uniform all of which existed before the building was even finished,” the principal said.
The principal said that the staff met with parents on two occasions before the school was opened in 2009 to introduce the school's principles and uniform. “We are the Peetri school family, we belong together, we respect the same values, and the school uniform is one tool with which to reinforce this feeling of unity,” she explained.
Niinesalu said that girls are required to wear a skirt in grades one through four because they have ballroom dancing classes where girls are taught how to sit properly when wearing a skirt.
The headmaster added that the requirement only applies inside the schoolhouse. “We have three 20-minute breaks during which time the children play outside and can put ski pants on top of skirts when it's cold outside. Nothing has happened over the past eight years,” she said, and added that no child is forced to be cold as the building is well-heated.
“It seems petty to me; however, a parent might as well demand their child attend physical education class in a tutu and not a track suit,” Niinesalu said.
Equality Commissioner Liisa Pakosta was reluctant to reveal the name of the school in question, also not included in her March 7 opinion. “You are on the right track,” she said when asked whether the incident concerns the Peetri school.
Pakosta said that her office has recommended the school change its policy. “We have explained why the policy is not a good one, or in accordance with the basic school curriculum, the basic and secondary school act, and equality acts,” she said.
Even though Pakosta believes the school's policy constitutes discrimination, the school is under no obligation to comply with her recommendation. “In that case the parent or student have the right to file for moral damages of up to €10,000 based on the (commissioner's – ed.) opinion,” she said.
The commissioner said that the school failed to explain why the requirement only concerns the first four grades. “The school says it is necessary for promoting tradition. How are these traditions shaped by grades one through four?” Pakosta wondered. “If a school wants to become an establishment of tradition, is the uniform really the best place to start? Perhaps educational content would be more important?”
According to Pakosta, having the requirement in place in high school, university, or vocational school would constitute a different situation as people can choose whether to attend or not. “These first- through fourth-graders have no choice. They have to attend their local school,” the commissioner said. Students generally do not choose their basic school in Estonia but are assigned a school by the local government.
Pakosta said that neither the commissioner's office nor the education ministry have had to deal with similar complaints in the past. “We received another complaint around the same time; however, it turned out the parent had gotten the wrong idea as the school had no such requirement,” she said.
The equality commissioner said that requirements to wear skirts are not a major problem in Estonia, and that rather it is a peculiar one-off case. “Most people cannot imagine someone demanding girls only wear skirts in Estonia in 2017,” she found.
Pakosta also turned to the education ministry when processing the complaint. “It is baffling that the ministry saw nothing wrong with the requirement and only concentrated on the money,” the commissioner said.