St. Johns County School Board weighs dress code changes, parents and students call for more

VIDEO: The St. Johns County School Board met to discuss possible changes to the dress code after calls from parents to make the enforcement more equitable have grown louder over the past three months.

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – The St. Johns County School Board met Tuesday morning to discuss possible changes to the dress code after calls from parents to make the enforcement more equitable have grown louder over the past three months.

The changes under consideration for the St. Johns County School District’s student dress code include doing away with a rule that girls’ skirts must be no shorter than four inches above the knee and making the dress code standards the same for boys and girls. Under the new proposal, skirts, dresses and shorts “shall not be any shorter than fingertip length or mid-thigh, whichever is shorter.”

The recommended changes were presented by Senior Director for School Services Paul Abbatinozzi to the school board during a workshop on the student code of conduct.

Possible changes to the student dress code in St. Johns County public schools. (Copyright 2021 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

“We also believe that gives principals the flexibility to recognize that many of our students have different builds different stature, and it takes that into account,” Abbatinozzi said of the recommended rule for shorts and skirts. “I’ve had several conversations with middle school parents regarding some challenges about acquiring garments that fit our dress code and I think this really takes that into consideration, but again, also gives our principles of flexibility to address those situations when needed.”

The district is also considering adding a change that requires that shirts and tops must cover the entire shoulder of students and be long enough to cover the waistline and midriff.

The proposed changes come after Bartram Trail High School came under fire last week following a teacher’s decision to digitally edit 80 photos of female students that appeared in the yearbook.

RELATED | ‘We can do better’: St. Johns superintendent breaks silence on edited girls’ yearbook photos

After the presentation on the proposed changes, school board member Kelly Barrera asked for the district to also drop a measure that prohibits the excessive use of makeup.

The St. Johns County School Board met Tuesday morning to discuss possible changes to the dress code after calls from parents to make the enforcement more equitable have grown louder over the past three months.

But parents and students, including those affected by the yearbook photo editing decisions, said the proposed changes are not enough.

Riley O’Keefe, a freshman at Bartram Trail who became the face of the yearbook photo issue when it made national headlines, told board members schools should be a safe space for students.

“Not only is the wrong idea being sent, but the implementation of the dress code has become the distraction,” she said. “The current situation is unjust unwarranted and unconstitutional. It is unjust because it is making young women feel insecure and uncomfortable. It is unwarranted because it sexualizes young women’s bodies and it’s unconstitutional because young women are treated differently than young men. The new changes to the dress code are moving in the right direction but it’s not enough.”

Bartram Trail High School freshman Riley O’Keefe speaks during a school board meeting. (Copyright 2021 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

O’Keefe and others who spoke out called on the district to create an advisory committee to evaluate the dress code and solicit feedback from the public.

“I implore you to do the right thing to do right by these students. Take your time. Do it right. Let’s not repeat this next year,” said Taryn O’Keefe, Riley’s stepmother.

Superintendent Tim Forson said he is open to the idea of forming a committee.

“The gender differences, we’ve got to get off of that. That’s another thing we have to move away from, gender descriptions and gender definitions. It’s about children,” Forson said.

RELATED | 80 yearbook photos, all girls, edited by St. Johns County high school employee

Amanda Emery — the mother of Zoey Iannone, a freshman who had her yearbook photo altered — gave a passionate plea to the district.

“She went into her freshman high school yearbook photo with peach fuzz on a buzz haircut because she had lost all of her hair, battling a disease in the months prior to this, and then after your bias dress code intimidation and shaming related to subjective determination of girls that are immodest and distracting to boys, the school decides to humiliate Zoey in the yearbook, that’s been circulated to thousands,” she said.

Emery called for the district to apologize and make systemic changes to the dress code.

“Changing a few words in a dress code does not change the intent, or the ability for those who have bias to subjectively and overzealously apply and enforce that dress code to target girls, and shame and embarrass them,” Emery said.

Abbatinozzi said the district has been receiving feedback from parents for the past few months on the dress code.

“It’s really important that as we move forward, we still endorse a code of conduct and a dress code that supports a positive school climate. Dress code matters and should always be addressed,” Abbatinozzi said. “I’ve responded to quite a few emails throughout the course of the spring and even as early in the fall, that we really want to make sure we’re doing it with positive guidance. It’s not with the intent to embarrass students, and that is very important we need to make sure we continue to work on that. We need to make sure we continue to get better at that, and that’s certainly not the premise of the dress code.”

One key change is defining “distracting in character.”

“Distracting in character represents clothing, piercings and accessories, displaying profanity, violence, discriminatory messages, sexually suggestive phrases or advertisement of those phrases or symbols of alcohol and drugs to tobacco. We don’t see those acceptable at school. They certainly don’t support a positive school climate,” he said.

The district was also criticized in March after teen girls said they were taken out of class at Bartram Trail 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.

“This matter is much larger than photoshopped yearbooks or dress code sweeps. It’s about the way young women’s bodies are viewed, not only by the administration or the district but by the world,” Riley O’Keefe said.

There’s a June 8 deadline for the school district to update its code of conduct each year, but that date could be amended, the board said.

Parents are asking that it be postponed to allow time for a special committee and public hearings.

Any changes to the student code of conduct, which includes the dress code, must be approved by the school board.

The goal of the workshop Tuesday was to take a deeper look at the dress code and get input from the community, but the board will not vote on any changes until later.

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