St. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – After the St. Johns County School District overhauled its dress code policy last year, some parents tell News4JAX that their students are still receiving unfair violations.
Other parents tell us that they’ve seen a marked improvement at some schools on how administrators impose the rules on what students can wear.
Last year’s changes came after intense — even nationwide — backlash because of the way the dress code was written and the way parents said school officials were enforcing it. They claimed that the rules were disproportionately affecting girls. In 2021, the district made major changes to its dress code policy in response, but some parents told News4JAX on Tuesday that major changes did not come to that enforcement part.
Some parents said they have noticed a change from last year in how the dress code rules are being enforced. Emily Lim has children in the district and said she had heard complaints from parents at the very beginning of the year.
“Since then, I have personally seen kids walking in and out with shorts and all that stuff,” Lim said. “So last week, my daughter decided to try it. She had a cheer practice before school and so she decided to just stay in her athletic shorts and see what happened. And it was fine. She didn’t get dress coded.”
Lim’s daughter is not alone. News4JAX heard from several parents who said their children are left with a choice between testing the limits of the dress code rules to see what’s acceptable and what’s not or going to school in an uncomfortable outfit just to avoid a conflict.
“My daughter has been wearing mostly leggings and jeans to avoid getting dress coded and she is a hot/sweaty (and grumpy) mess from riding her bike in pants,” one parent wrote on Facebook.
Meanwhile, a parent at a different school said, “My daughter has for sure been pushing the limits and even made a comment that no one will say anything, ‘because they were in the news.’”
In 2021, the district also sent out a survey to parents asking a series of questions to see how much they agreed with aspects of the dress code rules. One notable result was for the prompt: “Clothing must cover areas from one armpit to the other armpit, down to 5 inches in length on the upper thigh. Tops must have shoulder straps and be long enough to adequately cover the waistline and not expose midriff.” Eighty-eight percent of more than 10,000 survey takers either agreed or strongly agreed with that, and 12% were against it.
Later in the year, St. Johns County schools adopted a gender-neutral set of rules, dropped the 5-inch in-seam rule for shorts and told administrators to avoid embarrassing students when they receive a violation.
“Up until recently, girls were not allowed to wear tank tops,” said Kathy Centeno, a parent of St. Johns County students. “It just seems very antiquated, I guess would be the best word.”
Complaints about St. Johns County’s school dress code infamously came to a head in spring 2021 when the yearbook at Bartram Trail High School featured digitally-altered photos of at least 80 students to make their outfits appear more modest. Every single one of the edited photos was of female students, but even before that controversy, a series of reports about unfair female dress code enforcement had spurred an ongoing federal Title IX investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. According to a source familiar with the investigation, it’s expected to enter the interview phase soon, though district officials said they haven’t been contacted by the office since turning over records last year.
Lim said the subjectivity problem in the dress code policy still needs a solution so students know how to follow the rules and teachers know how to enforce them.
“There’s still work to do because there are still students that are, you know, not able to go to school and weather-appropriate clothing or age-appropriate clothing,” Lim said. “And I just don’t feel like that’s acceptable.”
News4JAX asked the district for the number of dress code violations handed out so far this year. We did not receive those results by publication.