Last May, with temperatures hitting more than 80 degrees, Kayla Huba and her track team showed up to practice at Albany High School in New York in sports bras.
The boys’ team also had their shirts off, Huba said. But the athletic director, Alice Chapple, stopped the practice and warned the girls that their attire was inappropriate and a distraction to their male coaches, according to Huba.
The next day, the team showed up dressed the same way again, because it was even hotter, Huba said. This time, Chapple kicked them out of practice for violating the dress code. She also told one of the boys practicing to put his shirt back on, Huba said, but didn’t kick any of them out.
Later that day, Huba—now 19—and other team members tried to attend a lacrosse game in the same outfits, but security guards and Chapple stopped them.
“I don’t know her personal reasoning, but I feel like maybe it’s just society has kind of put it into everyone’s brains that women’s bodies are sexual, like we’re overly sexualized,” Huba, who was a senior at the time, said.
“But guys having their shirts off is not an issue.”
Chapple did not respond to requests for comment.
After being asked to leave the lacrosse game, one of Huba’s teammates, Jordan Johnson, started a Change.org petition to fight the dress code, which has garnered more than 50,000 signatures so far.
“I started it so we could see change, or at least make a big stink about it,” Jordan, now 16, said.
“And it’s at least going to shed some light on it and you know, open people’s eyes.”
Students of color, girls, and LGBTQ+ students are disciplined disproportionately for dress code violations, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report from 2022, which called on the Department of Education to address dress code disparities. Dress codes are also gendered, the report found, 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.
The vast majority of the girls on the track team were Black and Latina, according to Linda Morris, an attorney for the ACLU.
Team members were banned from competition and suspended
The day after getting kicked out of the lacrosse game, track team members, including Huba, were banned from a competition. On Saturday, May 14, 2022, they received letters at their homes in which Chapple formally introduced an athletic suspension. The letter did not specify how long the suspension would last, but Huba said it was meant to be three days.
The letter, obtained by Education Week, alleged that the girls used inappropriate language when asked to leave practice, despite being warned about their dress code violations.
“Some girls were wearing sports bras while boys had their shirts off. Both groups were addressed and the coaches were informed of the expectation. I had a separate in depth conversation with the girls about appropriate attire at practice in regard to the student code of conduct. I informed the student athletes that this was a warning.”
“On Thursday, May 12, [Huba] was insubordinate when she refused to follow the rules set forth and enforced by me the previous day,” Chapple said in the letter.
The letter also said the girls team “caused a disturbance” at the lacrosse game they went to.
“I believe [Huba] poses a continuing danger to persons or property or an ongoing threat of disruption to the academic and athletic process,” the letter said.
The school district did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The aftermath of the suspensions
The 13 girls’ track team members appealed to Chapple and the superintendent to reverse their suspensions, but their first two appeals were unsuccessful. Meanwhile, Huba and Johnson missed out on district and state-level competitions.
Around the same time, on June 23, 2022, the ACLU and the NYCLU sent a joint letter to the district that accused it of potentially violating the First and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which protect equal rights despite race or sex, and freedom of speech respectively. The letter also alleged that the district may have violated federal Title IX protections and provisions of the New York State Constitution.
“The District’s policies and practices prioritize boys’ and men’s freedom from hypothetical ‘distraction’ over girls’ autonomy, and physical comfort and wellbeing, causing girl athletes to wear more layers of clothing despite the hot weather to avoid scrutiny and further disciplinary action,” the letter said.
”Importantly, these stereotypes reflect and reinforce a longstanding culture of victim-blaming, rooted in misogyny, that conveys the message to girls that their clothing choices may justify anything that happens to them.”
Then-superintendent Kaweeda G. Adams said in a statement to the Albany Times Union in May 2022 that the students were suspended due to “inappropriate and disrespectful behavior directed toward an administrator.” Their suspension was in no way related to wardrobe, Adams said.
However, both Huba and Johnson said they did not behave disrespectfully toward Chapple.
“I think one thing that stood out to me was just how harshly the students in Albany were treated simply for wearing what is essentially athletic gear during practice,” Morris, with the ACLU, said.
“They were basically pointed out by the school district to be dangerous, and I think that that was very much connected to racial and sexist stereotypes about Black girls and girls of color.“
The changes in the dress code
The girls appealed to administrators a third time after the organizations sent the letter, and this time, they were told their suspensions would be dropped. After that, the girls went from fighting their suspensions to fighting the dress code that got them in trouble to begin with.
For the rest of the year, Huba and her team attended school board meetings to push for a new dress code.
“It didn’t feel like they actually wanted our input, and I don’t think they thought we were going to take up the offer to actually sit down and have a conversation with them,” Huba said.
“I think it was definitely just repetition, of us continuously saying, ‘This is why it needs to be changed.’ And we were very, very pushy.”
Members of the school board did not respond to requests for comment.
“Any student who would like to wear a sports bra is welcome to do so at any athletic practice,” board Vice President Anne Savage told the Times Union.
“It’s going to come down to the district administration to establish those rules [for various activities] as is appropriate.”
The district’s new dress code is much better, Huba said, especially for athletes.
“Certain classes or activities may have different attire expectations, such as sneakers for physical education, athletic wear including sports bras for sports practices….” the new dress code says.
But both Huba and Johnson have seen the district dress code target girls more often, for wearing common clothing. Even with the positive changes, Huba thinks girls will have to be on the lookout for being disciplined for violations more than boys.
“Why is it that we had to step up and say something about this for it to be changed?” Huba said. “I don’t think that this will be a problem again, and if it is, I’d be really sad that that would happen to them because they shouldn’t have to deal with this again.”