On a Monday morning in April 2018, Lizzy Martinez arrived at Bradenton's Braden River High School wearing an oversized dark gray Calvin Klein shirt without a bra underneath—a choice she made because of a bad sunburn from spending the weekend at a local waterpark. By fifth period, Martinez ended up in the school nurse's office, where Martinez says disciplinary dean Violeta Velazquez forced her to put on multiple layers of T-shirts and told her to “jump around” to see if her breasts would bounce around.
Velazquez then instructed Martinez, then 17, to place Band-Aids over her nipples to obscure them. Martinez, now 21 and a full-time student at the University of South Florida, says the experience left her feeling “ashamed," “mortified" and "isolated," and she quickly spoke up about it. The incident went viral after being picked up by national news outlets, especially after it was revealed that the dress code section of the student handbook never mentioned a requirement that female students wear a bra, nor that nipples must remain covered by undergarments.
The School District of Manatee County cited Martinez for wearing clothes that exposed body parts in an indecent or vulgar manner “that disrupts the orderly learning environment.”
"The school board's statement reinforces that students, especially female students, are solely responsible for the learning environment of others, rather than teaching male students how to control themselves," says Martinez. "Advocating for the education of professional attire is one thing, but referring to female students' bodies as vulgar is over-sexualizing minor children."
Martinez says she received several messages after the incident from fellow students who had also received dress code violations. One told Martinez that Velazquez had told her she needed to “dress better for her size,” since she was a curvier girl. (Velazquez could not be reached for comment.)
In the same week that Martinez was dress-coded, a male friend, Markey Vazquez, wore a semi-sheer, tight, white T-shirt beneath which his nipples and nipple piercings were completely visible. He was never dress-coded. Vazquez says he was "baffled" by the double standard. "I wasn’t stopped at school or even looked at by school staff," he says.
According to Martinez, the Manatee County School District superintendent at the time, Diana Greene, told Martinez’s concerned mother that the administration would be adding what she called a “countywide policy” to require female students to wear undergarments, a decision Martinez says would cause students to feel uncomfortable and harassed. "Imagine having a faculty member in a high school checking to make sure you were wearing undergarments," she says.
Martinez was not the first student to be found in violation of a student dress code for dubious reasons, and, unfortunately, was not the last. Each year in America, young girls are subjected to dress codes that enforce the idea that what a girl wears equates to her consenting to be sexualized by others.
While both the School District of Manatee County and School District of Sarasota County provide a universal student "code of conduct" that includes a general school dress code for all students in their respective counties to follow, Sarasota County allows each school's principal the right to use these "minimum standards" to meet the "uniqueness of their school community" while having a final say on the "appropriateness of dress." Manatee County allows individual schools the right to create their own dress code based on the district's requirements, but any added or altered rules are "subject to district approval."
Such dress codes have become a target of protests, petitions, complaints and lawsuits based on claims of double standards between how male and female students are treated. While School District of Manatee County communications director Michael Barber tells Sarasota Magazine that the Manatee dress code promotes “gender equality," both Sarasota and Manatee county high schools have been at the center of viral incidents in recent years.
Ten minutes down the road from Braden River, at Lakewood Ranch High School, there have been claims of stiff punishments for students who break the school's dress code. Former Lakewood Ranch High School student Alyssa Hamende says that, in 2020, she was forced to place duct tape over holes in her jeans that were directly above the knee, which caused her skin to rash and bruise after several hours. Hamende became angry at what she saw as hypocrisy in the dress code, since shorts that ended above where the holes in her jeans were located would have been acceptable, according to the dress code.
Hamende's distraught father called the school, worried that the disciplinary action would appear on her permanent transcript, which colleges use for admissions purposes. The infraction was considered a warning, but the written report gave no indication that Hamende had only received a minor dress code infringement and no other more serious disciplinary action was required.
“It’s not fair that girls have to worry about being objectified based on their clothing choices at such a young age,” says Hamende.
Multiple students and parents have also complained about the lack of regulation for school uniforms, such as cheerleader or color guard outfits. Former Lakewood Ranch High School student Kenzie Horner says she was almost given a "disruption detention" for showing her shoulders during a school spirit week, but was never disciplined when she was in color guard attire at football games, pep rallies or school events.
"The dean who dress-coded me told me, 'Let's just see if we can make this look more appropriate for your classmates,' when I wore an off-the-shoulder yellow dress as Belle to school when it was Disney-themed day," says Horner. She says the statement made her feel insecure and embarrassed about her body, and that she was "distracting" students with her breasts. "I was a little bustier than other girls," she says, "so it was no surprise the dean would dress-code me over the other smaller female students, who wore leggings and shorter shirts for spirit week."
Horner is now 20 and a student at Southern Methodist University. "I felt singled out because of my body, which makes me feel like I'm to blame for how my body naturally looks," she says. "It also makes me so angry and frustrated that administration can pick and choose who can wear ‘inappropriate’ outfits while representing the school but not while in school."
According to a report from the National Organization for Women, 50 percent of teen girls in America say they are “self-conscious” about their bodies, 45.5 percent consider cosmetic surgery, 40 to 60 percent of elementary school girls are concerned about becoming “too fat” and 90 percent of people who have eating disorders are women between the ages of 12 and 25.
Hamende says she felt worried about what others thought of her appearance and questioned whether it was her fault for being "distracting.”
"This left me with the impression that I always have to be careful of what I wear because you don't want to send someone the wrong impression," she says. Horner says she became "very self-conscious" since her incident with the dress code, which has "seriously impacted her mental health."
In the age of #MeToo, media outlets and forums have made it easy to expose how schools enforce dress code violations disproportionately against girls. A search on Change.org shows hundreds of open petitions against individual school dress codes. Many of the petitions’ titles assert that their schools’ dress codes are “sexist” or “unfairly enforced.”
Kassidy Saba, a former student at Sarasota High School, created a petition in April 2021, claiming that her school’s dress code was “body-shaming one gender into modest submission fit for traditional patriarchal values.” The petition went viral, while Saba spent the school day in in-school suspension after being dress-coded for her showing her shoulders. Both of Saba’s parents worked full-time and could not bring her a change of clothes.
In less than 24 hours, more than 1,100 students, parents, alumni and others signed Saba's petition and pictures flooded in of girls wearing modest outfits like long-sleeved shirts and jeans, sweatpants and thick-strapped tank tops with jackets, all of whom were punished under claims of defying student dress code requirements.
Sarasota High School’s student government presented principal David Jones with a dress code committee to work on redesigning the current dress code, but it is unknown if anything was ever changed. (Jones did not respond to a request for comment.)
When asked a series of questions via email about sexism in local dress codes, Sarasota County School Board Chairwoman Jane Goodwin writes, “We have a dress code policy and that is our extent of involvement.”
Students are not the only ones questioning the validity of school officials’ decisions about dress codes.
“As a teacher, I always felt like my focus should be elsewhere and that enforcing dress code took a lot of time and effort that I simply did not have,” says former Lakewood Ranch High School Advanced Placement history teacher Katie Soles. “If we are wasting time worrying about if a girl’s shoulders are not covered or their shorts are too short, we aren’t getting the day started in a productive way.”
Soles now teaches in North Carolina, where she says it is easier to "focus on the actual teaching" with a less-regulated dress code. "Most of the time, I think dress code violations being hyper-focused on by administration or teachers made it a 'distraction,' not the actual 'violation' itself," she says.