After nipple controversy, Florida school district wants dress-code change

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The School District of Manatee County will recommend a slight revision to its dress code after a high school student went to class without a bra and was then told to cover her nipples on April 2, according to a letter sent to the American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday.

In a letter dated April 30, members of the ACLU accused district officials of allowing discriminatory enforcement of its dress code in violation of state and federal law. When school officials told 17-year-old Lizzy Martinez to put on a second shirt under her long-sleeve shirt, and then to cover her nipples with bandages, they were sexualizing her body and targeting girls more often than boys, the ACLU letter said.

“The alleged actions taken at the school level as contained in the letter are simply untrue and appear exaggerated and embellished for purposes of media sensationalism,” according to Wednesday’s letter from the district. Citing student privacy laws, the letter did not expand on what details are disputed.

The ACLU did not immediately return a request for comment, nor did Martinez.

Manatee’s dress code, found in the Code of Student Conduct, is based on Florida Statute 1006.07, said district attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum.

The code prohibits clothes or grooming that “distracts the attention of other students or teachers from their school work,” and that principals or their designees will decide whether the clothes create “a climate that is distracting to learning.”

Such wording “leads to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement in practice,” according to the ACLU.

Though the district previously said the incident could have been handled better, it also said Martinez’s nipples caused a distraction and therefore a dress code violation. Wednesday’s letter repeated that statement.

Teitelbaum said that, while the dress code was always based on Florida statutes, the district would recommend specific statutory language be added to the 2018-2019 Code of Student Conduct, preventing future confusion.

Instead of using the term “distraction,” the dress code could be revised to use the word “disruption,” which is found in the statutes.

“It would clarify the language and also give the student expectations and give a legal citation behind it…and if they say to me, ‘Hey, you may have ambiguity,’ I want to clear up the ambiguity,” Teitelbaum said.

He said possible revisions to the codes are released for public inspection each year. The superintendent will make her recommendations, and all proposed changes will then be voted on by the school board.

Martinez has said her nipples are neither a distraction nor a disruption. She felt that boys would never be targeted if their nipples were seen underneath their shirts, whereas she was taken out of class.

“I’ve always wanted to see some sort of education to students on not stigmatizing and objectifying bodies in general,” she previously said.

The ACLU recommended that district officials receive training on proper dress code enforcement. Students, teachers and administrators are trained on the Code of Conduct during the first month of school, according to this year’s booklet.

“That is, to me, what states the obvious,” Teitelbaum said. “It’s always ongoing; there’s always ongoing training for our personnel.”

District officials, the ACLU said, should also publish written guidelines that prevent school administrators from enforcing the dress code in a discriminatory manner. Wednesday’s response said the district already employs a “Prohibition of Discrimination” policy.

Martinez’s mother, Kari Knop, previously said Superintendent Diana Greene wanted to amend the upcoming dress code to require bras. Knop said the promise was made during a phone call about the alleged mistreatment of her daughter.

Greene has not commented on Knop’s account of the phone call.

Regardless, the new letter said students are not required to wear gender-specific undergarments under Florida law, and that Manatee School Board members have not voiced a need to “go beyond what the legislature has authorized.”

Martinez held a “bracott” two weeks after the incident at Braden River, encouraging students to attend school without a bra, to write a message on their shirts or to simply speak out. The district soon took a stance against protests, citing a possible distraction to ongoing testing.

The ACLU said Manatee officials trampled on students’ First Amendment rights. In Wednesday’s letter, the district said Martinez’s protest went on with no interruption or consequences.

“Their job is to ensure freedom of rights and dissemination of information and, from that perspective, we’re on the same page,” Teitelbaum said.

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