The American Civil Liberties Union stepped in this week to defend the choice of students at a Florida high school to go bra-free, saying the school’s threat to impose a mandatory bra policy for girls amount to sex discrimination.
The ACLU says Braden River High School in Bradenton violated a 17-year-old student’s rights last month after it required her to cover her nipples with adhesive bandages, saying her undergarment-free look had become a distraction to fellow students, including boys who laughed or stared at her.
Lizzy Martinez was pulled from class, given an extra shirt and, when that wasn’t deemed enough, given the bandages. She was then sent back to her classroom after what she called a humiliating experience.
“Stop sexualizing my body,” she said, taking to Twitter to ding her school.
She attempted to lead a boycott, urging fellow students to come to school without bras or speak out about her treatment, but the school warned that this too could be deemed a distraction.
The school district has admitted it mishandled her case but says Lizzy did violate the policy by being distracting, and the school needed to deal with a legitimate issue.
In an attempt to address the situation, the school said it would change its dress code next year to make bras mandatory for all female students, according to the ACLU, which also alleges Lizzy isn’t the only female student to be targeted.
Another student, who wanted to remain anonymous, told the ACLU the same dean told her to be mindful of her chest area when dressing for school because she’s a “big girl.”
“A school’s dress code cannot make generalizations about what types of clothing or appearance are appropriate for a boy or a girl to wear to school. Unfortunately, we often see gender stereotypes and discrimination play a prolific role in the enforcement of school dress codes across the country,” said Nancy Abudu, legal director for the ACLU of Florida.
Mitchell Teitelbaum, the attorney for the School District of Manatee County, responded to the ACLU in a letter saying that the district is still reviewing the accusations but disputes some of the facts in the ACLU’s version of events.
In general, Mr. Teitelbaum said, the school is trying to strike a balance.
“While we recognize that students of Manatee County do not leave their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse steps, the District constantly encourages students to embrace their freedom of expression, but within the bounds of the law,” Mr. Teitelbaum wrote to the ACLU.
Elizabeth M. Schneider, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, said schools need to be wary of citing distractions as the basis for their rules. She said educational institutions, like law schools, used to exclude women on the basis that their presence would distract male students and thus inhibit learning.
“The high school is playing into a very old and illegal concept in using the theme of distraction as a ground for differential treatment,” Ms. Schneider said.
She also said it would be unconstitutional to make it mandatory for female students to wear bras.
“Unless you are going to do a body check of every woman student who comes through the door, which would be even far more illegal, it’s impossible to check,” Ms. Schneider said.
Tracy A. Thomas, a professor at the University of Akron School of Law, said Lizzy’s situation is representative of the #MeToo movement with women coming forward sharing experiences of sexual harassment.
“Girls are surprised and hurt when they learn that their fellow male students and the administrators view them through this sexualized lens,” she said.
She suggested school policies punish boys for inappropriate comments, rather than shame female students.
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