By Lateshia Beachum
Washington – Last week, Bartram Trail High School in St. Johns, Florida, a public school about a 30-minute drive from Jacksonville, released its yearbook, and Riley O’Keefe was eager to see her photo.
The 15-year-old freshman immediately noticed something was amiss.
O’Keefe initially laughed off the picture, which had been altered to lift her neckline, until she turned more pages and noticed more obvious edits, with some bordering on the cartoonish side.
“I couldn’t believe they printed those and thought it was OK,” she told The Washington Post in an interview. “I started to get really upset and angry. [The school is] looking through children’s photos and looking at their chests.”
O’Keefe and her sister, a sophomore at the school, didn’t get the worse of it. Pictures of those who dared to wear patterns that day were marred with changes that looked like something out of Minecraft or the work of a first-grader, Stephanie Fabre, O’Keefe’s mother, told The Post.
DRESS CODE DEBACLE | “She thought she was doing the right thing and trying to be helpful and I think ultimately, though, it was a mistake.” – @SJCSD board chair Patrick Canan on the decision to alter female student yearbook photos. #News4Jax @wjxt
— Joe McLean (@JoeMcLeanNews) May 24, 2021
Pupils and guardians are furious that the pictures of 80 young women were altered, leaving teenagers feeling embarrassed and ashamed while their parents demand answers and change.
St. Johns County School District Superintendent Tim Forson said in a statement that the “student picture situation” didn’t have “sufficient review of the steps taken before the decision was made to edit some student pictures.”
“Certainly, there has never been an intent to embarrass or shame any student for the clothes that they wear,” he said. “Unfortunately, we are learning a valuable lesson in the importance of process and understanding that the intent is not always the result.”
The edits were made by a teacher who is also the yearbook coordinator, according to Christina Langston, chief of community relations for the school district.
In the past, students who were deemed in violation of the student code were excluded from the yearbook altogether, she said. The digital alterations to the images of female students were a solution to making sure all students were included, said Langston, who said students left out were not notified and that the disclaimer on their yearbook page was the notice.
Forson said the yearbook coordinator did nothing to deserve any disciplinary action, First Coast News reported.
The outcry from the community isn’t the first time the school’s dress code has drawn attention.
In March, 31 girls received dress code violations after school administrators and other school staff patrolled hallways to monitor student attire, which involved asking girls to raise their hands over their heads to see if their shirts exposed skin around their abdomen, The St. Augustine Record reported. The school usually averages about 12 or less dress code violations per day for its more than 2,800 students, the paper reported.
Shortly after, some boys staged a demonstration, wearing clothing items that would normally cause a dress code violation.
That day caught local media fire and moved O’Keefe to start an online petition demanding changes to the dress policy.
Taryn O’Keefe, Riley’s stepmother, said she has been pushing the district for answers since last fall when her stepdaughter came home from a “Dress for Success” day upset that she received a verbal warning about the length of her business skirt.
“Now you’ve made her feel bad. She loved that outfit,” she said. “When that happened that’s when I got really stirred up and formed a parent group.”
The school is offering refunds for parents calling about the issue, but the school should acknowledge and apologize for its handling of the yearbook photos and reissue the yearbooks, Fabre said.
“The end result is that the systematic dress code needs to be changed and consistently applied and enforced. Teachers need to go to some type of training,” she said. “The sexualization of young girls has to stop.”
The Post has reviewed a letter of proposed changes to the dress code for the school, which includes removing the standard differences between boys and girls, fingertip-length advice for girls instead of the four-inches-above-the-knee rule and what shirts must cover.
Taryn O’Keefe said she doesn’t support the changes because it’s not enough.
For Riley O’Keefe the dream dress code would allow boys and girls to both wear tank tops in the Florida heat with no violations, and discard words such as “modesty” and “distracting.”
The aspiring lawyer says taking on the dress code is more important than the yearbook or what girls are allowed to wear – it’s about how the school and the school district view young women’s bodies.
“The dress code is based on creating a safe and better learning environment . . . it completely forgets about girls and acts like something is wrong with our bodies,” she said. “The yearbook and how they chose which photos to edit is a continuation in their discrimination against females. They think males bodies are less distracting but naturally assume sexual with our bodies.”