Portia Espinosa felt awkward when a teacher publicly called her out in front of her peers for wearing a top revealing her shoulders in violation of dress code.
“It was in the middle of the cafeteria when every single student in my grade was in there,” the now 14-year-old Newberry High School freshman said. “It’s embarrassing. No one wants to get dress coded or called out or put in front of everyone.”
Today, Portia is banding together with Girl Scouts Troop 224 to reform the culture around Alachua County Public Schools’ dress code. The girls are using this effort to attain their Silver Award, an honor that signifies successful completion of a community service project.
As the dress code stands today, the group sees it as unjust and discriminatory against girls.
The troop compiled data from students across ACPS in support of their views about the dress code.
More than 100 students responded to a Google Form with questions about how many times an individual has been dress coded, their comfort level when dress coded and whether they’ve received a referral for too many dress code violations.
Of the 24 males surveyed, 17% were dress coded, according to their data. In comparison, 71% of 126 females surveyed were dress coded.
The group garnered more than 1,600 signatures in a petition advocating for a committee to investigate dress code matters in the county. They’d like to see more non-discriminatory dress code policies as well as discreet enforcement and less harsh punishments. As written, the dress code allows for students to “be asked to leave an after-school activity” if they violate its rules and allows for further consequences if violations continue.
On the website where they compiled their data, the troop laid out a revised dress code, which includes changes such as removing the requirement that clothing not be “oversized” and pants not “baggy.” The girls also want to remove existing conditions about the wearing of outer garments such as jackets and sweaters.
All three girls spearheading the effort — Portia, Josie Kirwan and Bella Cline — agreed young people should be willing to speak up and take a stand on matters that concern them.
Josie, a 14-year-old Gainesville High School freshman and member of the troop, believes an update to ACPS’ dress code is long overdue.
“The main things that we have a problem with in the dress code is that it’s sexist, and it targets larger girls,” Josie said.
The group’s findings indicate ACPS students who weigh about 123 pounds were dress coded six or more times in the school year while students weighing about 115 pounds have been dress coded about two or three times.
The girls are also concerned the enforcement policies regarding the dress code are too strict.
Their study found 31% of surveyed students who had been dress-coded were not allowed to participate in everyday school activities because of what they were wearing.
“I think that the dress code is more of a distraction for students than the clothing could ever be,” Josie said, pointing out that violations could lead to students being taken out of the classroom.
They’re also concerned that dress-coding often happens in public, frequently leading to embarrassment for the students involved. Their data shows more than 90% of students surveyed have stories like Espinosa’s where the dress code was enforced in front of others rather than in a one-on-one setting.
Jessica Kirwan, Josie’s 42-year-old mother, said the troop managed to communicate their concerns earlier in the year to Donna Kidwell-Diehlman, the former ACPS executive director of Exceptional Student Education and Student Support Services.
Due to changes initiated by new Superintendent Carlee Simon, Kidwell-Diehlman was no longer working there at the end of June. Simon did not renew the contracts of a number of ACPS officials including Deanna Feagin, the Glen Springs Elementary principal, and Thomas Cowart, the director of maintenance and construction.
Kirwan said the troop needs to find a new contact at the school board so they can submit their dress code proposals.
Bella, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at P.K. Yonge Developmental School, believes the dress code policies undermine the educational purpose school is meant to serve due to its strong focus on students’ attire.
“I think that it targets girls in particular, and it distracts from the fact that we’re supposed to be learning, and we’re not coming to school for clothing,” Bella said.
Bella is passionate about making a difference.
“Personally, I would just say to go for it if you feel strongly about it and it’s something that’s impacting you or people that you know,” she said. “Somebody has to start to make a change, and that might as well be you.”
Contact Omar Ateyah at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @OAteyah.
Omar is a second-year journalism major and news assistant for The Alligator. He enjoys going on long, thoughtful walks.