After nipple controversy, Manatee school district wants to tweak dress code

Lizzy Martinez, 17, was asked by a school official at Braden River High to cover her nipples with Band-Aids, as she was causing a "distraction."
Lizzy Martinez, 17, was asked by a school official at Braden River High to cover her nipples with Band-Aids, as she was causing a "distraction."

The School District of Manatee County will recommend a slight revision to its dress code after a high school student went to class without a bra and was then told to cover her nipples on April 2, according to a letter sent to the American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday.

In a letter dated April 30, members of the ACLU accused district officials of allowing discriminatory enforcement of its dress code in violation of state and federal law. When school officials told 17-year-old Lizzy Martinez to put on a second shirt under her long-sleeve shirt, and then to cover her nipples with bandages, they were sexualizing her body and targeting girls more often than boys, the ACLU letter said.

Braden River High student Lizzy Martinez was called to the office and told her breasts were distracting. She was asked why she wasn't wearing a bra and told to put band-aids over her nipples.

"The alleged actions taken at the school level as contained in the letter are simply untrue and appear exaggerated and embellished for purposes of media sensationalism," according to Wednesday's letter from the district. Citing student privacy laws, the letter did not expand on what details are disputed.

The ACLU did not respond to a request for comment.

Manatee's dress code, found in the Code of Student Conduct, is based on Florida Statute 1006.07, said district attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum.

The code currently prohibits clothes or grooming that "distracts the attention of other students or teachers from their school work," and it says principals or their designees will decide whether the clothes create "a climate that is distracting to learning."

Such wording "leads to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement in practice," according to the ACLU.

Though the district previously said the incident could have been handled better, it also said Martinez's nipples caused a distraction and therefor a dress code violation. Wednesday's letter repeated that statement.

Teitelbaum said that, while the dress code was always based on Florida statutes, the district would recommend specific statutory language be added to the 2018-2019 Code of Student Conduct, preventing future confusion.

Instead of using the term "distraction," the dress code could be revised to use the word "disruption," which is found in the statutes.

"It would clarify the language and also give the student expectations and give a legal citation behind it...and if they say to me, 'Hey, you may have ambiguity,' I want to clear up the ambiguity," Teitelbaum said.

In an email, Martinez said she continued her silent protest and has yet to wear a bra to school.

"I would like to see Braden River High School revise their dress code as a whole," she wrote. "Them saying they are changing the term 'distraction' to 'disrupting' is annoying, they mean the same thing in reference to dress code. So there is no change. What's 'disrupting' to you may not be 'disrupting' for me."

Possible revisions to the district code, Teitelbaum said, are released for public inspection each year. The superintendent will make her recommendations, and all proposed changes will then be voted on by the school board.

Martinez argued that her nipples are neither a distraction nor a disruption. She feels that boys would never be targeted if their nipples were seen underneath their shirts, whereas she was taken out of class.

"I was wearing a shirt given to me by a male friend and I'm 100 percent sure he wasn't wearing a bra the countless times he wore it to school," her email states.

In its April 30 letter, the ACLU recommended that district officials receive training on proper dress code enforcement. Students, teachers and administrators are trained on the Code of Conduct during the first month of school, according to this year's booklet.

"That is, to me, what states the obvious," Teitelbaum said. "It's always ongoing; there's always ongoing training for our personnel."

District officials, the ACLU said, should also publish written guidelines that prevent school administrators from enforcing the dress code in a discriminatory manner. Wednesday's response said the district already employs a "Prohibition of Discrimination" policy.

Martinez's mother, Kari Knop, previously said Superintendent Diana Greene wanted to amend the upcoming dress code to require bras. Knop said the promise was made during a phone call about the alleged mistreatment of her daughter.

Greene has never commented on Knop's account of the phone call.

Regardless, the new letter said students are not required to wear gender-specific undergarments under Florida law, and that Manatee School Board members have not voiced a need to "go beyond what the legislature has authorized."

Martinez held a "bracott" two weeks after the incident at Braden River, encouraging students to attend school without a bra, to write a message on their shirts or to simply speak out. The district soon took a stance against protests, citing a possible distraction to ongoing testing.

A group of Braden River students discuss their reaction to what happened to classmate Lizzy Martinez when she didn't wear a bra to school, and how they will support the Bracott movement by using social media and speaking out.

The ACLU said Manatee officials trampled on students' First Amendment rights. In Wednesday's letter, the district said Martinez's protest went on with no interruption or consequences.

"Their job is to ensure freedom of rights and dissemination of information and, from that perspective, we're on the same page," Teitelbaum said.