ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – The St. Johns County School Board on Tuesday morning approved new dress code rules, including changes to the district’s policy about the length of students’ shorts.
The dress code policy has been the source of controversy for months, as well as the subject of a federal investigation.
After adopting the new gender-neutral policies, the St. Johns County School District’s Student Code of Conduct will no longer require students to wear shorts with an inseam that measures at least five inches. Instead, students must wear shorts that are “no shorter than mid-thigh.”
“There’s a lot of different body shapes,” said Senior Director for School Services Paul Abbatinozzi, who was in charge of revamping the dress code. “We don’t have 44,000 students that are all the same. I think the mid-thigh terminology and language gives the flexibility to the students and the families with regards to those different body shapes. It’s not one standard piece.”
But while parents who spoke during the meeting said the changes — which also included allowing students to wear hats and sunglasses during outdoor activities — are a step in the right direction, most said they still take issue with the new mid-thigh rule.
Riley O’Keefe, a Bartram Trail High School sophomore who became the face of the recent yearbook photo controversy when it made national headlines, told board members Tuesday more changes need to be made.
“For many young women with longer legs, this makes the inseam requirement even longer than originally proposed, which was 5 inches,” O’Keefe said. “For example, I’m only 5′6″ and the inseam requirement to reach my mid-thigh would be around 6 inches, and I’ve never seen women’s shorts with a 6-inch inseam.”
A parent who objected to the new rules said the current language discourages girls from wearing shorts and gives staff the authority to inspect a girl’s inner thigh.
School board Chairman Patrick Canan floated the idea of requiring shorts to be mid-thigh or no shorter than a 3-inch inseam, but that was shot down by other board members. One revision made during the meeting Tuesday included allowing students to have rips in their shorts as long as the holes don’t show skin or are below mid-thigh.
The district also addressed the enforcement of the new rules after some students and parents claimed female students have been unfairly targeted and embarrassed by administrators during school for violating the dress code.
Abbatinozzi said schools shouldn’t conduct “dress code sweeps” and the district will work with employees to make sure they are providing positive guidance without embarrassment.
“We don’t need to do things in hallways, and so forth, so that positive guidance without embarrassment doesn’t mean I’m singling out someone during the middle of a class change with 1,500 kids in the hallway,” he said.
Canan said enforcement is a “big issue” that is being discussed at the district level and communicated to the schools. Board member Beverly Slough said the district will rely on “good common sense” when it comes to enforcement.
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. The district then sent a survey to parents of students, seeking input on a dress code, and used the input to make changes.
The district said it will work to put the dress code changes into the student code of conduct before students return to class on Aug. 16.
The school board left the door open to revisit how the changes are being implemented in the coming months and make more changes if necessary.
“I hope the community gives us a chance to get this right,” Canan said.