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ACLU sends letter to St. Johns County school district urging further changes in dress code policy

Use of gender-neutral terms in policy ‘will not fully resolve the issues,’ ACLU warns

St. Johns County School District headquarters in downtown St. Augustine.
St. Johns County School District headquarters in downtown St. Augustine. (Copyright 2021 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – As the St. Johns County School District continues to grapple with a dress code policy that has been the source of controversy for months and is the subject of a federal investigation, the ACLU of Florida weighed in Friday, sending a letter to the district about the policy.

The ACLU commended the district’s plan to adopt a gender-neutral dress code and urged it “to do so without delay.”

But the ACLU said moving away from gender-specific language in the dress code itself “will not fully resolve the issues with the policy.”

READ: Letter from ACLU of Florida to St. Johns County School District

Citing news reports and reports from students and families, the ACLU said it appears school officials in the district have been selectively enforcing the dress code policy against girls in a manner that “reinforces invidious sex stereotypes in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Article I § 2 of the Florida Constitution, and the Florida Educational Equity Act.”

The U.S. Department of Education has launched an investigation into a complaint about the district’s enforcement of its dress code policy. The complaint alleges that the district discriminates against female students. The district has turned over a cache of documents to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in connection with the investigation.

Through a public records request, News4Jax obtained the number of Title IX complaints filed through the Department of Education’s OCR against public K-12 schools — as well as how many of those complaints prompted investigations by the office:

Calendar Year20162017201820192020
Title IX ESE cases total6,973736895775538
Title IX ESE investigations opened319323283199175

For months, the district’s dress code has generated controversy, from student complaints about how staffers’ comments on their attire made them feel “uncomfortable” to a series of poorly edited yearbook photos that resulted in national headlines.

Following a survey that was sent to parents of students, seeking input on a dress code, the St. Johns County School District recently discussed a draft dress code policy during a workshop.

Paul Abbatinozzi, senior director for school services noted that in the draft proposal that there are no more standards for boys and girls, but one policy for all students. The draft policy notes:

“The primary responsibility for a student’s attire resides with the student and their parent(s) or guardian(s). The St. Johns County School District expects students to dress in a way that is appropriate for the school day or any school sponsored event. Student dress code requirements reflect fair, equitable, and consistent practices for all students, while contributing to a safe and positive school climate.

“In accordance with statutory requirement F.S. 1006.07 (students are prohibited from wearing clothing that exposes underwear or that exposes body parts in an indecent or vulgar manner) enforcement will focus on positive guidance without embarrassment to the student and should not disrupt the educational process.”

The draft policy states that clothing, piercings and accessories displaying profanity, violence, discriminatory messages, sexually suggestive phrases, phrases or symbols of alcohol, tobacco or drugs is unacceptable. Pajamas and lingerie shall not be worn as exterior clothing on campus. Headgear and/or sunglasses cannot be worn unless permitted for religious or medical reason. It states head gear may be worn during outside activities.

LINK: Draft of proposed dress cove policy (slides 13-20)

The draft policy states that all students’ clothing must cover areas from one armpit to the other armpit, down to the mid-thigh and approximately 5 inches in length from the inseam. Tops must have shoulder straps and be long enough to adequately cover the waistline and not expose the midriff.

Abbatinozzi says he hopes to have an approved dress code finalized by early August, which they hope to have online for parents to view when back-to-school shopping.

But the ACLU’s letter says the district’s newly proposed policy still isn’t going far enough in its changes.

“... While it eliminates the most blatantly discriminatory terms, the proposed policy still contains provisions, such as the ban on underwear and restrictions on bottom lengths, that will lead to discriminatory enforcement against girls. The ACLU respectfully requests that, in addition to revising its dress code policies to remove all gender-based distinctions, the School District take immediate steps to remove all terms, such as unrealistic limits on bottom lengths and underwear, that have a discriminatory impact on girls; revise or abandon the Dress For Success program guidelines; take steps to solicit additional and ongoing feedback from students and parents regarding their experiences; and implement longer-term measures, such as providing guidance and training for school staff and administrators to guard against further biased enforcement. These steps are necessary for the School District to ensure that its dress code is non-discriminatory in effect and on its face, and to come into compliance with federal and state law.


About the Authors:

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