ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – The St. Johns County School District superintendent said Monday the district plans to make changes to its yearbook editorial process following the controversial decision by a Bartram Trail High School employee to alter 80 photos of female students she interpreted to be in violation of the school district’s dress code policy.
“I think one of the key pieces is not leaving it to any single staff member to make those kinds of decisions so that there’s a review process that probably includes either school administrators or other members of the staff, to help make those kinds of decisions, if, in fact, we were going to edit an individual student picture like that,” Superintendent Tim Forson said.
The decision to digitally alter the student photos so less skin was shown without letting the students know about the changes sparked outrage and confusion among students and parents. The issue has garnered national attention, with headlines appearing on The Today Show and in The New York Times.
Forson called the incident a “lesson learned” and said the edits were not intended to embarrass or shame any student.
“I think what we want to do is to be fair to kids and to be consistent about how we look at things of this nature,” he added. “I think we can do better.”
Forson also addressed the concerns of parents that the decision to edit the photos will have a negative effect on their mental health.
“There’s never a place for us, for our action to be such that would be causing mental anguish,” said Forson, who has four daughters. “Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have standards, we absolutely should have standards, and that should include dress code standards.”
But, he conceded, the district is not being consistent when it comes to the dress code for boys and girls on a day-to-day basis.
“We will continue to work on, make sure that our enforcement and the way that we treat and work with children, don’t embarrass them or call them out among peers and among others,” Forson said. “That’s part of how we get better. We need to work to get better each and every year.”
St. Johns County School Board Chairman Patrick Canan told News4Jax on Monday the move by the employee to change the photos was a mistake.
“I think it was not sanctioned by the district and certainly, I don’t think, by the school as well,” Canan told News4Jax. “It was a teacher who was doing the best she could and I think there was no mal-intent. She thought she was doing the right thing and trying to be helpful and I think ultimately, though, it was a mistake.”
The goal of the altered photos appeared to be to make the students’ clothing more modest, with changes that covered up the shoulders and chest areas of female students.
On Tuesday, Canan said the school board will discuss the district’s dress code as part of a workshop. He expects parents to show up for the meeting to give feedback on the issue.
“The world doesn’t stand still and so society and culture does change,” Canan said. “So that’s why it is important to always review what your policy is regarding any issue, and it is taken seriously.”
He knows a lot of St. Johns County parents feel the dress code is unfair in its enforcement.
“As to the young ladies, compared to the men. I think that they, a lot of parents think that the dress code is disparaging of young ladies. And so that’s why it’s important for us to review the policy like we, we do all the time anyway,” Canan said.
Forson said the district will bring forward revisions to the dress code on Tuesday “that we hope are such that are satisfactory to everyone.”
Bartram Trail came under fire in March after teen girls said they were taken out of class and sent to the dean’s office to change clothes or face suspension. The incidents sparked an online petition created by students calling for change, which had more than 4,000 signatures.
News4Jax found the number of recorded violations of the St. Johns County School District’s student dress code has skyrocketed during the 2020-21 school year, according to data provided by the district.
Across the district, 78% of dress code violations go to female students.
“I think one of the key pieces is that it is fair to every student, so there’s no gender bias to it, there’s no bias to it and any other way that might exist. Even unintentionally, that’s easy to happen,” Forson said. “I think that’s the one piece that no matter who I am, whether I’m a male or a female, affluent or not, that it treats me fairly.”
Canan said the purpose of Tuesday’s 9 a.m. meeting, which will be live-streamed, is to hear from parents, take a deeper look at the dress code and explore possible changes.
“Also you got to hear from the school side of it as well because you do need a dress code. I think without a dress code, you have chaos,” he said. “So we got to figure out what is the appropriate dress code in 2021 in St. Johns County.”