Federal investigation initiated into St. Johns County Schools’ dress code policy

St. Augustine Record | By Colleen Michele Jones | June 15, 2021

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating the St. Johns County School District for potential violation of federal statutes for its dress code policy based on gender bias.

The school district received a complaint Monday from the Department of Education’s OCR’s southern regional office (Complaint No. 04-21-1208), alleging its dress code has unfairly targeted female students; publicly humiliated those female students; and also altered only female, not male, images in this year’s yearbook photos for Bartram Trail High School, one of nine secondary schools in the county’s public school system. 

The complaint, filed March 29 by parent Nancy Tray, is based on the Title IX statute enacted by the federal Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.

The school district, via its spokeswoman Christina Langston, offered no other comment Tuesday to The Record other than to say that administrators were working to gather and submit the data requested by the OCR.

Tray, who has been one of the main advocates behind a movement to revise what she and other parents believe is a gender-discriminatory dress code policy, said she felt encouraged that federal authorities are investigating the issue but was sorry it had to come to this point. 

“Since Day 1, people said we should get an attorney involved. By filling out a simple form online, I was able to get a third party involved to finally look at this,” Tray said in a phone interview with The Record Tuesday morning.

Judgements for potential Title IX violations have come down differently in courts across the U.S. over the last several decades, most of them unfavorable when dealing with dress code discrimination.

In 2019, however, three students, via their parents, successfully sued a charter school in North Carolina, challenging its policy that requires girls to wear skirts and jumpers and prohibits them from wearing shorts or pants. They argued the policy “subjects them to archaic sex stereotypes about what constitutes appropriate behavior and conduct for girls, reinforcing the notion that girls, but not boys, must dress and behave modestly, that they are less physically active than boys and that they should behave and dress in a manner that is otherwise traditionally considered appropriately feminine.” 

Dress code comes under the microscope

The skirt worn by Bartran Trail High School Riley O’Keefe which resulted in a verbal warning for dress code violation in fall 2020. According to the district’s dress code policy, skirts may not be shorter than 4 inches above the knee. CONTRIBUTED

The dress code issue came to a head this past school year in St. Johns County. 

A March 26 large-scale inspection of students’ dress at Bartram Trail High School resulted in 31 students cited for issues such as the length of their skirts or exposed midriffs. All of the violations were against female students.

Following the incident, parents and students began calling the district policy sexist for both its wording and enforcement as more than 80% of infractions over the last three years have been issued to female students, according to data provided by district officials.  

According to the complaint sent by the OCR to the school district, “the district’s dress code targets female students based on the way it is written. The Complainant also said that in district elementary, middle and high schools, staff enforce dress code requirements differently for female and male students. The Complainant said that, for example, school staff issue dress code violations to female students for wearing shorts or wearing shorts that do not meet dress code length requirements, but not to male students.

“In addition, the Complainant alleged that in enforcing the dress code, staff publicly shame and humiliate female students in front of their peers. As examples, the Complainant said that staff send female students out of the classroom or stop them in the hallways or other common areas and instruct them to go to the office, where they are then held until they change clothes, their parents bring them another set of clothes, or a principal sends the students back to class.”

The investigation, according to documents received by the school district, will also focus on whether female students involved in the BTHS dress code sweep were subject to embarrassment by their peers when “lined up in the hallways while staff determine whether they are in violation of the dress code. As an example, the Complainant described a March 2021 incident at Bartram Trail High School. The Complainant said staff lined up ninth-grade, female students and, if they had on tank tops and a hoodie, told them to remove their hoodie, which then meant they only had on a tank top, which is a dress code violation. The Complainant also said that staff told the female students to hold their hands above their heads to see if their shirt showed their belly.”

Yearbook photo altering makes headlines

Finally, the complaint will attempt to determine how and why Bartram Trail High School faculty members altered the annual yearbook photos of female students whose attire school staff deemed to be a dress code violation, while photos of male students were not retouched.

News of the controversy made national and international headlines.

“The Complainant stated further that some of the female students were mocked about their yearbook photos,” according to the complaint.

The school district is currently working to reissue unaltered versions of the yearbook.

The OCR has asked the St. Johns County School District to return the data requested via the complaint within the next 15 days. OCR notes further investigation, including interviews and/or an on-site visit, might be required as well.

A 15-member committee comprised of district leaders, principals, deans, parents and students charged with considering revisions to the district dress code was scheduled to meet May 27, but the district canceled the meeting at the last minute. As off press time Tuesday, the meeting had not been rescheduled.

Featured image: Riley O’Keefe, a student at Bartran Trail High School, had her yearbook photos edited without consent to cover more of her chest. CONTRIBUTED

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