Less than five months after a student was told to cover her nipples with bandages, a mom is highlighting her daughter’s own experience with the “militant” dress code in Manatee County schools.
On Monday, Christine Barnhill mailed letters to Superintendent Cynthia Saunders and the district’s five school board members, along with the principal and assistant principal at R. Dan Nolan Middle School in Lakewood Ranch.
A school employee called Barnhill on Aug. 23 and said her daughter violated the dress code. Barnhill drove to the school and joined a group of fellow mothers and alleged violators.
“I saw a couple of girls walk out of the bathroom with new shirts on and then hand their moms the clothes, and the moms putting them in these plastic bags and leaving,” she said.
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She said her daughter, 12-year-old Jenna Barnhill, was then summoned from a “holding room” by Assistant Principal Michelle Clark. She pushed aside the girl’s hair and revealed a bra strap peeking out from the collar of her shirt, the mother said.
The girl, usually averse to attention, burst into tears. Barnhill said her husband is a U.S. Air Force veteran, and that he felt the school’s enforcement was “militant” and “demoralizing.”
In a prepared statement on Wednesday afternoon, district attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum said the school was merely trying to speak with Barnhill’s family and to give them a copy of the 2018-2019 Code of Student Conduct.
“School staff, including the principal, strongly disagree with the facts as stated in the letter,” Teitelbaum said in an email. “School officials state they never asked the student to shake her head, bend or change her clothes or undergarments. It was the parents who had the student change their clothes, and not School personnel.”
He also quoted a section of the dress code, which was inspired by Florida Statute 1006.07.
According to the district’s Code of Student Conduct, students are prohibited from “wearing clothing that exposes underwear or body parts in an indecent of vulgar manner or that disrupts the orderly learning environment.”
Barnhill said her daughter is an athlete and that she wears sports bras for their comfort. A bra strap is far from indecent or vulgar, the mother said, adding that she was, indeed, told to bring her daughter a new bra.
Regardless, the girl changed bras while her family discussed the incident with Clark.
Principal Scot Boice soon joined the conversation, Barnhill said. She quoted his explanation of the dress code.
“He started rattling off these examples of reaching for something in the lunchroom, bending down to get a book, slinging a backpack over their shoulders, and then if an undergarment shows, that’s a violation,” she said.
Barnhill said she and her husband waited 24 hours before they started to write, review and send their letter to the district, which they also posted on Facebook. The posts received hundreds of comments and Barnhill was contacted by mothers from surrounding counties, each with their own stories.
She said the consensus is clear: girls are losing valuable class time to senseless dress code violations. As someone who lives near the school, Barnhill was able to reach the school and resolve the incident in about 20 minutes.
But that was time away from science class, her daughter’s favorite course. She said other mothers have spent an hour or more in similar situations around the state.
“How much learning time are these girls losing to these subjective, gender-biased dress code violations?” she said.
A recent dress code issue put the School District of Manatee County in headlines across the country and even the globe.
Lizzy Martinez, a student at Braden River High School, was told to cover her nipples with bandages after she wore a long-sleeve shirt and no bra to school On April 2.
Her story was first told by the Bradenton Herald, and then in a New York Times article published on April 17. It said students across the country are using social media, protests and lawsuits to fight their local dress codes.
Young women are disproportionately cited for dress code violations, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which contacted the school district after Martinez’s story went viral. While she was accused of being a distraction to students, the organization said Martinez’s peers should learn to control their gaze.
The ACLU asked district leaders to create guidelines on proper dress code enforcement, to train their employees on the new guidelines and to remove a section of the dress code.
Students are prohibited from wearing “personal attire or grooming (that) distracts the attention of other students or teachers from their school work,” a rule that leads to “arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement,” the ACLU said.
That section still remains in the district dress code. However, the word “distracts” was changed to “disrupts,” aligning it with the wording of state statutes.
Manatee’s school district took “corrective measures” to prevent incidents like the one at Braden River High, according to a previous statement from the district’s attorney.
Though her daughter was not made to cover her nipples with bandages, Barnhill feels the incident was part of a larger dress code problem. She said it’s about more than an apology — it’s about creating real change.
Much like the ACLU’s previous letter, Barnhill’s letter said the district violated laws that protect students from discrimination or other barriers to an education.
She said the letter was her first course of action. Next, she hopes to have an open dialogue with district administrators.
“As a strong mom trying to raise strong girls, I do my best to lift up her self-esteem and self-worth,” Barnhill said. “And then they walk into middle school, and with the swipe of a walkie-talkie by an assistant principal, that’s all taken away.”