Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Gender and School Dress Codes

Parents Complain and the ACLU Expresses Concern About Dress Codes of the St. Johns County School Board in Florida

On March 29, 2021, Nancy Tray, the mother of three students in St Johns County, FL filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, alleging dress codes in district schools discriminated against female students and, therefore, violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. In June 2021, the Office for Civil Rights stated that it had launched an investigation into the complaint. It is discussed here.

On July 30, 2021, the ACLU sent a letter to the St. Johns County School Board since the Board was due to vote on a new dress code on August 3. View the letter here.

On Aug. 6, 2021, Nancy Tray placed the following on Facebook:

"A few months ago, Sonia Pressman Fuentes joined our group. I remember Sonia mentioning something about being a feminist activist and wanting to help. I know I thought, `Yes, please help us!,' but it was a very busy time for this group and I'm embarrassed to say I don't remember taking the time to learn much about her then. Over the past months though, Sonia's support has truly proven invaluable and we are incredibly grateful to her.

"This week, Sonia emailed me a video link for a speech that she recently gave when she was honored during NOW's 55th anniversary conference (Sonia is one of NOW's original founders!). In her email, Sonia told me `I thought you and your colleagues who are fighting to end the sexist student dress codes at the St. Johns County School Board might like to see the woman who interfered in your activities.' As I listened to her speech and heard her describe how she and her family escaped from Nazi Germany, how she came to the United States as a child, and later built the most extraordinary career fighting discrimination, my jaw dropped and my eyes teared up because who would have ever thought that someone so accomplished would reach out to help with our school dress code in Saint Johns. I can not do her bio justice here without writing a novel so I will simply borrow this quote: 'Sonia Pressman Fuentes is a lawyer, author, speaker and pioneering feminist leader who fought for women's equality in the work force and helped initiate the Second Wave of the women's rights movement.' I am attaching a link to the video of her speech here (click the video on the left) and the link to her website in the comments.

"We are humbled and honored that Sonia would go out of her way to join this group and contribute her time and expertise to help our students. Thank you, Sonia Pressman Fuentes!"

On Aug. 6, 2021, Nancy Tray responded to Sonia's request for information on what took place at the school board's Aug. 3 meeting as follows, in pertinent part.

"On August 3rd, our board voted to approve a much more gender-neutral dress code. Our district dress code no longer contains separate sections for boys and girls. We now just have one dress code for all students. Along with removing the 'girls' section of the code, our district removed language about female clothing specifically needing to be 'modest and not revealing or distracting'. Another big change is that the code is now written in a way that allows students to show their shoulders.

"I checked and the school board just put the new code of conduct up on their website today. (View the code of conduct here.) The new dress code can be found on pages 13-15.

"We still have a lot of issues to address in our district regarding dress code enforcement. The 'mid-thigh' requirement in the new dress code appears very subjective and we are concerned that, given our district's history, the rule may be used to continue to target girls and prevent them from wearing shorts. It is also concerning to us that the code allows for principals at individual schools to set up their own stricter dress codes and enforcement.

"The Title IX investigation is ongoing. I am hoping to receive an update regarding the investigation soon."

An article in the St. Augustine Record about the school board's new policy of Aug. 3, 2021, follows.

"In response to local, federal scrutiny, St. Johns County School District adopts new dress code policy

School Board votes 5-0 to make change in response to local, federal scrutiny"

Colleen Michele Jones

Capping a year of strident controversy over student dress code, the St. Johns County School District on Tuesday adopted a new policy for the 2021-22 school year, in a move toward addressing issues of inequity in gender guidelines and enforcement that have dogged the district and made national headlines over the past year.

The school board voted unanimously (5-0) in favor of a policy that trades specific inseam measurements for shorts, shirts and dresses for male and female students for a "mid-thigh" coverage rule for both sexes, as well as other more gender-neutral changes.

Another sticking point since a draft version of the policy was circulated last week was amended to allow for rips and tears in clothing above the thigh if patches or mesh is behind it and does not expose skin.

The measure comes as school administrators say they are trying give some leeway to "the style of the day" while still maintaining standards of modesty and discretion in an educational environment.

In a school board workshop July 27, a draft version of the dress code policy was presented that proposed a required 5-inch inseam for skirts, shorts and dresses.

Both students and parents challenged that guideline at Tuesday's meeting.

"I'm only 5-foot-6-inches, 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," said Riley O'Keefe, a sophomore at Bartram Trail High School. "While the newly developed dress code is a step in the right direction, it's not fair and equal as it should be."

Paul Abbatinozzi, the district's director for school services, said the proposed policy was drafted following an online survey distributed to the community in early July.

The district received 12,149 responses to the nine-question survey.

Previous coverage:

Do St. Johns County school dress codes discriminate? Expert says yes

As far as enforcement of dress code, Abbatinozzi, who has headed up revisions to the policy, acknowledged that the district still had its work cut out in coming up with more universal inspection of potential dress code violations district-wide

"We should not be doing so-called 'dress-code sweeps' in hallways," Abbatinozzi said.

By that, Abbatinozzi was referring to the March 26 inspection at Bartram Trail High School that resulted in 31 students, all female, cited for policy violations, some of whom were instructed by school staff to hold their hands above their heads to show where their tops fell on their midriff.

Digitally altering student yearbook photos at Bartram Trail High School to cover shoulders and cleavage of some young women this past spring further incited controversy across the education community.

Yearbook controversy:

After yearbook photos are altered, St. Johns County School Board to review dress code

The federal government is currently investigating the St. Johns County School District's dress code policy for potential violation of the Title IX code which prohibits discrimination in federally funded programs.

Recent revisions to the dress code were drafted following an online survey distributed to the school community in early July which received 12,149 responses.

Before voting on the new dress code policy, the school board took public comments from both students and parents in attendance at the district administrative building, as well as those calling in remotely to the meeting in real time.

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