Florida - A civil liberties group is demanding that a Florida school district change its dress code after a student was forced to put bandages over her nipples because she wasn't wearing a bra. The American Civil Liberties Union said the district violated the constitutional rights of female students and warned administrators against adopting a rule that girls must wear bras.
In an eight-page letter sent this week to Manatee County Schools Superintendent Diana Greene and two other school officials, the ACLU alleged that Lizzy Martinez, a 17-year-old junior at Braden River High School, was unfairly treated. The ACLU said the student was forced to put on an undershirt over a loose-fitting T-shirt and then hide her nipples behind the bandages.
It said other female students had been discriminated against, violating Title IX, which guarantees freedom from sex discrimination in schools. The ACLU also alleged violations of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, freedom of speech guaranteed in the First Amendment and Florida's Educational Equity Act.
Manatee County schools spokesman Michael Barber said the district would not respond beyond providing a preliminary letter sent to the ACLU. The letter, from Mitchell Teitelbaum, the school system's general counsel, said the district could not discuss individual students but that it disputed some of the "alleged facts" in the ACLU's letter. It also said there were "inaccurate and misleading allegations" against the school administration but that "the allegations are taken seriously" and an investigation is underway.
The issue of dress codes and how they affect female students is not restricted to Manatee County. The National Women's Law Centre just released a report saying school dress codes in traditional public and charter schools in the District of Columbia promote race and sex discrimination and present black girls with "unique" burdens. It said in part:
"Black girls in District of Columbia schools, like girls across the country, miss out on crucial class time simply because of the clothes they wear or the style of their hair or makeup," according to the report. "Again and again, they are suspended for tight pants, sent to the office for shoes that aren't quite the right colour, and told they must "cover up" before they can learn. Strict dress, uniform, and grooming codes do nothing to protect girls or their classmates' learning. Rather, these codes needlessly interrupt their educations."
The Manatee County schools' dress code says in part:
"You are expected to dress appropriately for school and for the business of learning with proper attention given to personal cleanliness, grooming, and neatness," the rules state. "If your personal attire or grooming distracts the attention of other students or teachers from their school work, disrupts educational activities and processes of the school, or is a potential safety hazard, you will be required to make the necessary alterations to such attire or grooming before entering the classroom or you may be assigned to In-School Suspension (ISS). If you fail to meet the minimum acceptable standards of cleanliness, neatness, proper fit, safety and decency as determined by the principal or designee and as specified in the District Code of Student Conduct, you will be subject to appropriate disciplinary measures. You are additionally prohibited from wearing clothes that expose underwear or body parts in an indecent or vulgar manner or attire that disrupts the orderly learning environment."
The Manatee County episode began April 2, when Martinez went to school wearing a "loose, long-sleeve" T-shirt without a bra underneath, according to the letter from the ACLU. She was called into the dean's office and told that her shirt was "distracting" other students, the letter said, and that boys were laughing at her.
Martinez was told to put on an undershirt, which she did after speaking with her mother on the phone, the letter said. But then she was asked to put bandages in X's across her nipples, the letter said. She was "mortified" and started crying in class, after which her mother came to pick her up, the letter said.
"That day, Ms. Martinez tweeted 'Stop sexualizing my body @piratenationhs' tagging the Twitter account of the school," the letter said. "The school responded by blocking Ms. Martinez on Twitter, as captured in screenshots that Ms. Martinez shared with the tweet '*school has student put bandaids over her nipples because it is a "distraction" then blocks them for calling them out on sexualizing her* :/' "
The ACLU letter also said:
- A protest by students was planned but did not take place after Principal Sharon Scarbrough warned against it in an April 13 announcement on the loudspeaker.
- On April 13, "Teachers and administrators informed students they would face out-of-school suspensions and be barred from attending prom if they attended school without a bra the following Monday" - even though it is not against the dress code not to wear one.
- Greene said she was going to change the dress code for next year to require that girls wear bras.
"Ms. Martinez's experience of discriminatory enforcement of the dress code is not an isolated incident," the letter said. "Other students and parents have described an environment in which female students are disproportionately targeted for violations of the dress code. Further, according to these accounts, the dress code is not evenly enforced among female students: female students with a larger chest or body type are more frequently dress coded. For example, one student, who wishes to remain anonymous at this time, described an incident in which Dean Velazquez told her she should dress differently because she is a "big girl" and she should keep the size of her chest area in mind when getting dressed."
The ACLU urged the school district to remove vague language and language based on gender stereotypes from the dress code.
The Washington Post