When Riley O’Keefe, a freshman at Bartram Trail High School in St. Johns, Florida got her yearbook for the 2020-21 school year, she flipped to her page to find that a black box had been added over her chest.
She was shocked. As she leafed through the pages, she found almost 80 girls’ photos had been altered similarly. Some had black boxes added to cover their shoulders as well. She did not find any boys’ photos altered.
“Obviously, that’s embarrassing, right? Your photo was altered and looks crazy in the yearbook,” she said.
“A lot of guys were making comments about the way our chests looked in the picture. And some were even writing in girls’ yearbooks about it.”
On the day she got the yearbook, Riley, now 17, happened to be wearing the same black bodysuit from the censored photo, she went to the front office and asked if her shirt was acceptable under the dress code, but the office staff couldn’t give her a definitive answer, she said.
So she went to her vice principal to ask the same question.
“The vice principal told me that some girls may have pulled down their shirts for pictures and that’s why they were edited. So even though my shirt looked like it was in [compliance with] dress code now, it may not have been for the picture,” she said.
“And that was really frustrating because they’re insinuating that we’re going in there and like pulling down our shirts for photos.”
Students of color, girls, and LGBTQ+ students are often disciplined disproportionately for dress code violations, according to a government accountability report, which called on the U.S. Department of Education to address dress code disparities.
Dress codes are also gendered, the report found, which means they enforce the gender binary, making it difficult for nonbinary, gender nonconforming, or transgender students to adhere to them.
Additionally, 90 percent of dress codes prohibit clothing typically associated with girls, focusing on the modesty or appropriateness of their clothing, whereas 69 percent prohibit items typically associated with boys, according to the report.
Students started demanding change after a dress code sweep
The yearbook censoring was not the first time Riley had raised issues with the St. Johns County school district’s dress code policies.
In March 2021, Riley walked through the doors of the school building to find a dress code “sweep.”
Administrators were standing by the doors, asking girls to raise their hands to determine if they were wearing crop tops, or making them unzip their jacketsto check what they were wearing underneath, according to news reports and Riley’s petition.
After News4Jax reported on the dress code sweep, the district sent the TV station a statement: “The administration at BTHS as with all our sites administers the expectations on student dress for all in a manner that is respectful and is not intended to be unfair to any group of students. Although there have been some inconsistencies with information on social networking, the principal and his administrative team have been meeting with students and families to follow up from Friday.”
The ordeal frustrated Riley, even though she was not among those dress coded, so she wrote a petition on Change.org, explaining that administrators checked the thickness of the straps on girls’ top, the length of their shirts and skirts, and threatened to suspend students if they didn’t unzip their jackets, according to Riley’s petition.
“The dress code is clearly based on the sexualization of young women and their clothing,” she wrote, “Especially since many girls are told they are dressed inappropriately or that what they are wearing may be ‘distracting’ to the boys.”
The district’s communications office did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Despite collecting more than 7,000 signatures, the petition, as well as speaking to the St. Johns County school board at a public meeting, yielded no change. Hundreds of students and parents expressed their concern about the dress code and signed Riley’s petition in April 2021, according to First Coast News.
At that point, the district’s senior director for school services, Paul Abbatinozzi, told parents that they should speak at the meeting in April to share their concerns with the board.
“We are very very committed to updated, revising (the code of conduct) and change,” Abbatinozzi said to First Coast News. “I’ve shared with some folks that – whether via email or phone conversations – that we are certainly committed to looking at our dress code and that I do anticipate there will be some revisions moving forward for the upcoming cycle.”
National attention after the yearbook incident prompted district action
After she saw the altered photos in the yearbook, Riley spoke again at a school board meeting about the dress code. This time, her speech gained national media attention. After that, the school stopped enforcing the dress code, she said.
“The school had basically censored these students’ chests, and had over-sexualized them. We’re talking about students. Children, who are taking their school photos,” said Linda Morris, a lawyer for the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project.
The ACLU sent St. Johns County schools a letter to the district in July 2021, a few months after the yearbook photos were altered, taking aim at the gendered dress code and accusing the district of violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, as well as parts of the Florida Constitution, and the Florida Educational Equity Act.
“Dress codes like this one also invite biased enforcement against other marginalized groups,” the letter said.
That sends a message to female students that their bodies are inherently sexual or inappropriate, Morris said.
“That’s just a message that no student should receive,” she said. “And a message that just really reinforces a world in which we can justify things like sexual harassment because of what a girl is wearing.”
The district introduced a new gender-neutral dress code
Riley said the district promised to form a committee to develop the new dress code, but she was never asked to join one. However, the district did change its dress code policy.
The new dress code policy removes some gendered language that Riley and Morris said was in the previous iteration. For example, the new version says all students can wear tank tops as opposed to only boys. Shorts, skirts, or dresses have to reach mid-thigh, and exposed midriffs are banned for all students. The old dress code had different rules for girls and boys, according to the ACLU’s letter that cited parts of the dress code.
“Under the boys section, the district required boys to wear their pants at the waist without showing boxer shorts or underwear, that their facial hair be “neatly trimmed and that they were prohibited from wearing boys may not wear “[r]evealing clothing and pajamas.”
Under the girls’ section, the old dress code restated the same three rules, in addition to prohibiting lingerie. But it also mandated that girls tops “must cover the entire shoulder and they must be modest and not revealing or distracting,” and that girls could not wear cut-out dresses or tops, “[e]xtremely short skirts,” and that their skirts “must be no shorter than four inches above the top of the knee, according to the ACLU’s letter.
The district confirmed that the dress code is now gender neutral, and that the “for girls,” and “for boys” sections have been removed.
In a mass email sent to parents in May 2022, more than 2,200 parents agreed with the district’s student code of conduct, which includes the new dress code. Only 332 parents disagreed with it, according to a poll sent to EdWeek by the district of 44,000 students.
In a slideshow created to explain the new dress code, district officials said: “Enforcement will focus on positive guidance without embarrassment to the student and should not disrupt the educational process.”
But if a student’s attire “threatens to disrupt the academic process or the good order and discipline of the school or is otherwise inappropriate,” principals can act according to their discretion to hand out punishments, according to the slides.
The new dress code feels more relaxed, and does not lead to as many students being disciplined because of what they are wearing, according to Riley. The removal of gendered dress code rules was an important change, she said.
“I think it made all of us feel like we had to be covered up 24/7 because our bodies themselves were inappropriate,” she said about the previous version.
“Girls that are already struggling with body image, social media, these girls’ bodies were being sexualized and they were feeling insecure at school because of this.”