This April 5, 2018 photo shows Lizzy Martinez, 17, at her home in Bradenton, Fla. Martinez was asked by a school official at Braden River High School to cover her nipples with Band-aids, as she was causing a “distraction.” (Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald via AP)

A civil liberties group is demanding that a Florida school district change its dress code after a student was forced to put bandages over her nipples because she wasn’t wearing a bra. The American Civil Liberties Union said the district violated the constitutional rights of female students and warned administrators against adopting a rule that girls must wear bras.

In an eight-page letter sent this week to Manatee County Schools Superintendent Diana Greene and two other school officials, the ACLU alleged that Lizzy Martinez, a 17-year-old junior at Braden River High School, was unfairly treated. The ACLU said the student was forced to put on an undershirt over a loose-fitting T-shirt and then hide her nipples behind the bandages.

It said other female students had been discriminated against, violating Title IX, which guarantees freedom from sex discrimination in schools. The ACLU also alleged violations of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, freedom of speech guaranteed in the First Amendment and Florida’s Educational Equity Act.

Manatee County schools spokesman Michael Barber said the district would not respond beyond providing a preliminary letter sent to the ACLU. (The full text of both letters is below.) The letter, from Mitchell Teitelbaum, the school system’s general counsel, said that the district could not discuss individual students but that it disputed some of the “alleged facts” in the ACLU’s letter. It also said there were “inaccurate and misleading allegations” against the school administration but that “the allegations are taken seriously” and an investigation is underway.

The issue of dress codes and how they affect female students is not restricted to Manatee County. The National Women’s Law Center just released a report saying school dress codes in traditional public and charter schools in the District promote race and sex discrimination and present black girls with “unique” burdens. It said in part:

Black girls in District of Columbia schools, like girls across the country, miss out on crucial class time simply because of the clothes they wear or the style of their hair or makeup. Again and again, they are suspended for tight pants, sent to the office for shoes that aren’t quite the right color, and told they must “cover up” before they can learn. Strict dress, uniform, and grooming codes do nothing to protect girls or their classmates’ learning. Rather, these codes needlessly interrupt their educations.

The Manatee County schools’ dress code says in part (see full text below):

You are expected to dress appropriately for school and for the business of learning with proper attention given to personal cleanliness, grooming, and neatness. If your personal attire or grooming distracts the attention of other students or teachers from their school work, disrupts educational activities and processes of the school, or is a potential safety hazard, you will be required to make the necessary alterations to such attire or grooming before entering the classroom or you may be assigned to In-School Suspension (ISS). If you fail to meet the minimum acceptable standards of cleanliness, neatness, proper fit, safety and decency as determined by the principal or designee and as specified in the District Code of Student Conduct, you will be subject to appropriate disciplinary measures. You are additionally prohibited from wearing clothes that expose underwear or body parts in an indecent or vulgar manner or attire that disrupts the orderly learning environment.

The Manatee County episode began April 2, when Martinez went to school wearing a “loose, long-sleeve” T-shirt without a bra underneath, according to the letter from the ACLU. She was called into the dean’s office and told that her shirt was “distracting” other students, the letter said, and that boys were laughing at her.

Martinez was told to put on an undershirt, which she did after speaking with her mother on the phone, the letter said. But then she was asked to put bandages in X’s across her nipples, the letter said. She was “mortified” and started crying in class, after which her mother came to pick her up, the letter said, adding:

That day, Ms. Martinez tweeted “Stop sexualizing my body @piratenationhs” tagging the Twitter account of the school. The school responded by blocking Ms. Martinez on Twitter, as captured in screenshots that Ms. Martinez shared with the tweet “*school has student put bandaids over her nipples because it is a ‘distraction’ then blocks them for calling them out on sexualizing her* :/”

The ACLU letter also said:

— A protest by students was planned but did not take place after Principal Sharon Scarbrough warned against it in an April 13 announcement on the loudspeaker.

— On April 13, “Teachers and administrators informed students they would face out-of-school suspensions and be barred from attending prom if they attended school without a bra the following Monday” — even though it is not against the dress code not to wear one.

— Greene said she was going to change the dress code for next year to require that girls wear bras.

The ACLU letter also said:

Ms. Martinez’s experience of discriminatory enforcement of the dress code is not an isolated incident. Other students and parents have described an environment in which female students are disproportionately targeted for violations of the dress code. Further, according to these accounts, the dress code is not evenly enforced among female students: female students with a larger chest or body type are more frequently dress coded. For example, one student, who wishes to remain anonymous at this time, described an incident in which Dean Velazquez told her she should dress differently because she is a “big girl” and she should keep the size of her chest area in mind when getting dressed.

The ACLU urged the school district to remove vague language and language based on gender stereotypes from the dress code.

Here’s the letter from the ACLU to Manatee County schools officials:

 

 

And here’s the preliminary response from Manatee County:


And here’s the Manatee County schools’ dress code, according to the district’s website:

SCHOOL DRESS CODE

You are expected to dress appropriately for school and for the business of learning with proper attention given to personal cleanliness, grooming, and neatness. If your personal attire or grooming distracts the attention of other students or teachers from their school work, disrupts educational activities and processes of the school, or is a potential safety hazard, you will be required to make the necessary alterations to such attire or grooming before entering the classroom or you may be assigned to In-School Suspension (ISS). If you fail to meet the minimum acceptable standards of cleanliness, neatness, proper fit, safety and decency as determined by the principal or designee and as specified in the District Code of Student Conduct, you will be subject to appropriate disciplinary measures. You are additionally prohibited from wearing clothes that expose underwear or body parts in an indecent or vulgar manner or attire that disrupts the orderly learning environment.

Apparel that violates this dress code will result in your removal from the regular school environment until acceptable apparel may be secured. Students who violate the district’s dress code policy will be subject to the following consequences in addition to other appropriate administrative action:

a) For a first offense, you shall be given a verbal warning and the school principal or designee shall call your parent or guardian.

b) For a second offense, you are ineligible to participate in any applicable extracurricular activity for a period of time not to exceed 5 days and the school principal or designee shall meet with your parent or guardian.

c) For a third or subsequent offense, you shall receive an in-school suspension pursuant to F.S. 1003.01(5) for a period not to exceed 3 days. You are also ineligible to participate in any extracurricular activity for a period not to exceed 30 days, and the school principal or designee shall call your parent or guardian and send the parent or guardian a written letter regarding your in-school suspension and ineligibility to participate in extracurricular activities.

The school principal or designee will be the final judge about whether your clothing is appropriate for school, creates a climate that is distracting to learning, or is a potential safety hazard. Principals, faculty, and staff members will enforce the dress code. Individual schools may have additional requirements if supported by a majority of School Advisory Council (SAC) members, and if parents are notified in writing of the changes.

Females — The following clothing MAY be worn:

a) Pants/Jeans.

b) Dresses that cover the entire back, are not cut low in front, and are reasonable and appropriate in length (defined as no shorter than above the tips of the fingers, with arms and hands extended straight down and not rising beyond this point when seated).

c) Skirts and shorts that are a reasonable, appropriate length (defined as no shorter than above the tips of the fingers, with arms and hands extended straight down and not rising beyond this point when seated), and fastened at the waist.

d) Tank tops are allowed only with an over shirt or an undershirt with sleeves. Blouses and tops must cover the entire front and back (cannot be low-cut), and be long enough to tuck inside the waistband. All undergarments must be covered. No sheer (see-through) shirts are to be worn unless tank tops with at least two inch straps are worn underneath.

e) Safe and appropriate footwear must be worn. Inappropriate footwear includes, but is not limited to, roller skates, skate shoes, and bedroom slippers.

f) Warm-ups that fit properly and are in good condition.

g) Form-fitting or excessively tight-fitting skirts, shorts, and pants (to include leggings, jeggings, or clothing made from materials such as spandex or lycra) must have an over garment, which extends down to your fingertips as your hands are extended to your side.

h) Shirts. (Shirt tail length should not be longer than the tip of your fingertips as your hands are extended at your side.)

i) Tunics worn over slacks are permissible.

Males — The following clothing MAY be worn:

a) Pants, jeans, and shorts that are reasonable, appropriate length (defined as no shorter than above the tips of the fingers, with arms and hands extended straight down), and fastened at waist. Spandex-type trouser or shorts are not appropriate. All undergarments must be covered.

b) Shirts. (Shirt tail length should not be longer than the tip of your fingertips as your hands are extended at your sides.)

c) Tank tops or muscle shirts with over shirt or undershirt with sleeves.

d) Net shirts with an undershirt or a buttoned over shirt.

e) Safe and appropriate footwear must be worn. Inappropriate footwear includes, but is not limited to, roller skates, skate shoes, and bedroom slippers.

f) Warm-ups that fit properly and are in good condition.

All Students — The following apparel or items are NOT allowed at school:

a) Sunglasses.*

b) Hats, visors, bandanas or other head apparel.*

c) Visible pierced jewelry that has the potential to cause injury or be considered a safety risk, or cause disruption to the learning environment.

d) Gang-related tattoos or inappropriate tattoos, as determined by the principal.

e) Cutoff pants, shorts, or skirts.

f) Clothing that exposes the midriff.

g) Spaghetti straps or strapless dresses or tops.

h) Unbuckled belts.

i) Ill-fitting sweat pants or warm-ups.

j) Suspenders hanging down – including overalls.

k) Clothing that advertises alcoholic beverages, tobacco, drugs or has questionable language or art work.

l) Known gang-related symbols.

m) Spandex-type dresses.

n) Beachwear.

o) Pajamas or other sleepwear.

p) Any clothing, accessories, jewelry, or hair styles that may be a distraction to self or others, or that have obscene or drug-related phrases.

q) Any clothing, accessories, or items that portray symbols or images that may be considered disruptive to the learning environment.

r) Clothing with frays, holes, cuts, or slits above the knee.

s) Gym shorts or soccer shorts that are NOT proper length.

t) Glass containers of any kind.

u) Skateboards.

v) Hoverboards.

w) Any clothing or jewelry that can be used as a weapon.

x) Aerosol sprays of any kind.

* May be worn during outdoor classes (such as physical education, construction, and agriculture), field trips, and during elementary recess. Sunglasses must be put away and kept out of sight during the rest of the school day. Does not include headdress worn for religious purposes or other headgear necessary for safety or medical purposes.

NOTE: Individual schools, with approval of the School Advisory Council, may develop additional dress code requirements that will be communicated to you and your parents in a variety of ways. Individual schools may establish a mandatory uniform policy if all conditions under the school uniform rule are met.

An individual school may be granted an exemption by the Superintendent from any provision of the dress code if requested by the principal and approved by a majority of the School Advisory Council members. Parents will be notified in writing of any approved exemption.