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Feds investigate discrimination complaint over St. Johns County Schools dress code

The U.S. Department of Education has launched an investigation into a complaint that the St. Johns County School District discriminated against female students through its enforcement of the dress code, according to a department memo obtained by News4Jax.
The U.S. Department of Education has launched an investigation into a complaint that the St. Johns County School District discriminated against female students through its enforcement of the dress code, according to a department memo obtained by News4Jax.

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – The U.S. Department of Education has launched an investigation into a complaint that the St. Johns County School District discriminated against female students through its enforcement of the dress code, according to a department memo obtained by News4Jax.

“OCR will investigate the following legal issue: whether the district subjected female students to discrimination on the basis of sex in connection with enforcing dress code requirements, in violation of Title IX and its implementing regulation at 34 C.F.R. § 106.31,” the memo from the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights said.

Those federal regulations prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs or activities.

The investigation follows months of backlash in the district, not only against the methods administrators used to implement the dress code policy but against the language contained within that policy.

“The Complainant alleged that the district’s dress code targets female students based on the way it is written,” the memo said. “The Complainant also said that in district elementary, middle and high schools, staff enforce(s) dress code requirements differently for female and male students.”

DOCUMENT: Office of Civil Rights notice of complaint to St. Johns County schools

RELATED: Attorney weighs in on investigation of discrimination complaint over dress code

The frustration led Nancy Tray, a parent of three students in the district, to file that Title IX complaint in March.

“So to me, it’s absolutely very overdue,” Tray told News4Jax in an interview. “As somebody with a daughter, who’s starting sixth grade next year and is being faced with all of these issues, it’s very personal to me.”

Tray said she filed the complaint on March 29 and, 8 days later, she was contacted and interviewed by representatives from the OCR. Weeks later, the district would be embroiled in nationwide attention over the controversial editing of female students’ yearbook photos at Bartram Trail High School, which Tray forwarded to the OCR to further inform her complaint.

“Over the past few months, as things happened, I’ve been sending it like, ‘now look at this yearbook thing,’” Tray said. “So yeah, I think that probably played a role.”

Tray’s complaint also noted a problem with the Bartram Trail’s Dress for Success rules and grading in career academy programs. The monthly initiative required students to wear professional attire, with stricter dress guidelines, for a grade.

The list of Dress for Success Day requirements for girls is longer than it is for boys.

This graphic was included on the St. Johns County School District webpage explaining Dress for Success Day requirements. (St. Johns County School District)

The complaint also cites the controversial editing of female students’ yearbook photos at Bartram Trail High School.

“Bartram Trail High School altered the annual yearbook photos of female students whose attire school staff deemed to be a dress code violation, but it does not appear that school staff altered the photos of male students,” the memo said. “The Complainant stated further that some of the female students were mocked about their yearbook photos.”

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) made clear that the launch of this investigation does not necessarily mean that the district did anything wrong.

“Please note that opening the complaint for investigation in no way implies that OCR has made a determination on the merits of the complaint,” the memo said. “During the investigation, OCR is a neutral factfinder, collecting and analyzing relevant evidence from the Complainant, the district, and other sources, as appropriate.”

As the Education Department investigates the Title IX complaint, the district is already in the process of overhauling the dress code policy, including the formation of a diverse committee to scrutinize and recommend updates to the current policy.

As of Tuesday, no new meeting date for the committee has been scheduled after the previous one was postponed.

More information about how the OCR handles compliant investigations can be found on the office’s website.


About the Author:

Joe covers education and breaking news. He is a frequent contributor to the News4Jax I-team and Trust Index coverage.