Flipping open a yearbook for the first time is normally a moment full of excitement – but at one Florida high school, some students were left in shock after seeing that their yearbook portraits had been edited.
When Bartram Trail High School freshman Riley O’Keefe saw her yearbook photo, she noticed a black bar was added to cover more of her breasts.
“I couldn’t believe that they printed the yearbook looking like that,” O’Keefe, 15, told CNN. “And then I started to flip through the yearbook and saw more and more girls with their chest edited.”
She texted her mother a photo of it on Wednesday from the school in St. Johns, Florida.
“I know she’s worn (the outfit) in school hundreds of times because it’s like her go-to outfit,” her mother Stephanie Fabre told CNN on Monday, saying she believes the outfit had met the district’s dress code. The dress code states that girls’ tops “must cover the entire shoulder and they must be modest and not revealing or distracting.”
There were 80 photos of female students that were altered in the yearbook this year, the district’s Chief of Community Relations Christina Langston told CNN on Monday.
“It is disappointing to be addressing the student picture situation in the Bartram Trail High School Yearbook,” St. Johns County School District Superintendent Tim Forson said in a statement to CNN. “Certainly, there has never been an intent to embarrass or shame any student for the clothes that they wear. Unfortunately, we are learning a valuable lesson in the importance of process and understanding that the intent is not always the result.”
The high school’s website has a disclaimer saying that if student portraits in the yearbook did not match the district’s student code of conduct, they may be “digitally adjusted.”
“The yearbook coordinator made the decision to edit the photos based on her assessment that the females were not in dress code,” Langston said in an email to CNN.
The superintendent said there was an insufficient review before the school decided to edit some of the students’ images. He called the staff member involved an “outstanding educator” and said there will be changes in how the content is considered in yearbooks to come.
The dress code prohibits clothing that is immodest
The student dress code prohibits clothing that is “immodest, revealing, or distracting,” according to the district’s code of conduct. However, each school’s principal has the “final authority” over whether a student’s dress is appropriate, the code says.
The anger over the edited yearbook photos is part of a larger issue, said Fabre. It’s the district’s dress code that needs to be revisited for its inequity with how it treats what girls wear, as opposed to boys, the student’s parent said.
“It comes on the heels of a much bigger issue of gender discrimination and these girls being targeted and sexualized for being told that their clothes are wrong,” she said. “There’s inequality within their dress code.”
In the section about all students, the dress code says “students are prohibited from wearing clothing that exposes underwear or that exposes body parts in an indecent or vulgar manner.”
Under the “All Students” section, it says, “Tank tops and shirts are not acceptable except in physical education classes.”
The girls’ section says girls cannot wear skirts that are shorter than four inches from the top of the knee. It also says, “Revealing clothing, pajamas and lingerie are not acceptable. Underwear must not be exposed. Hair curlers and excessive make-up shall not be permitted.”
While the dress code for girls and boys each have three entries, the list of rules for boys is shorter. The rules for boys include “boy’s pants/slacks must be worn at the waist. No boxer shorts or underwear may be visible. Mustaches and beards shall be neatly trimmed.” Pajamas and revealing clothing are not permitted.
The district dress code also prohibits attire that displays “profanity, violence, discriminatory messages, sexually suggestive phrases, advertisements, phrases or symbols of alcohol, tobacco or drugs.”
But some parents say the dress code is outdated
Fabre and some other parents are calling for a change in the district’s dress code.
“It’s antiquated,” Fabre said. She referred to the dress code talking about students not being allowed to wear culottes. “I mean, it’s 2021,” she said.
“It should be equal across the board,” Fabre said. “There needs to be a systematic change in the dress code.”
Adrian Bartlett, another parent who is hoping the school changes the dress code, said her daughter, 15-year-old freshman Brooke, also noticed her yearbook photo had been altered.
“You’re telling my daughter that she should be ashamed of that part of her body, that she should be covering it up,” Bartlett said. “I think that’s the completely wrong message to give to young teenage girls who are already going through the body shaming era and trying to understand themselves and then be comfortable with themselves.”
Brooke, whose last name her mother asked not be used, has struggled with mental health and body image issues, and the pandemic has made things harder, her mother said.
Her daughter was hospitalized and is undergoing treatment for mental health issues, Bartlett said. Brooke’s come a long way and only recently started feeling comfortable wearing clothes to school that weren’t baggy sweatshirts, she said.
“In Florida, it’s hot 90 percent of the year here,” Bartlett said. “But over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a lot of our kids wearing these big baggy sweatshirts 24/7, whether it’s winter or summer.”
While Brooke initially laughed at the terrible Photoshop edit on her portrait, it made her mother worry about what this could do to the teens long term, Bartlett said.
“I do worry about some of these other kids who might not be handling it as well as Brooke and how this could be really damaging for their mental health long term,” she said. “It’s mental health awareness, and they just completely botched that for all of these kids.”
Bartlett, like Fabre, finds the school dress code to be too strict for girls, she said. She’s found that it’s been difficult to find clothing that complies with the dress code and when her daughter does find something, she doesn’t always feel good in it, Bartlett said.
“That affects their self-esteem and creates even more body issues,” she said. “There’s got to be some kind of happy medium where our girls can feel comfortable going to school, feel confident, but yet still appropriate.”
Some students argue the dress code protects male students
The inequity between the boys’ and girls’ dress codes is something that some female students and their parents want addressed.
“I’m really hoping that the school takes a long look at how everyone views women’s bodies and takes a leadership role in trying to change that view,” O’Keefe said.
The issue also goes beyond the dress code, O’Keefe said.
“It’s also how people view our bodies,” she said. “For example, if a girl has a smaller chest versus a girl having a larger chest, the girl with a larger chest is much more likely to be dress coded and it’s not fair. We should be able to wear the same shirts, the same clothing and not fear being dress coded.”
Bartlett agreed, noting that it sends “the wrong message.”
“We’re telling our girls to cover up and dress modestly to protect the boys,” she said. “I think that’s just the wrong message. Everybody should be responsible for themselves and our girls to be able to dress comfortably, respectfully.”
The parents aren’t looking for just an apology, they want long-lasting change that will benefit students in the future, Fabre said.
“Everybody is making it sound like all we’re looking for is an apology,” Fabre said. “While that is absolutely 100% necessary, the key thing here is that there needs to be a systematic change in the dress code and the consistency of how it’s applied.”
Besides getting the dress code changed, O’Keefe said she hopes the school will educate the staff and male students.
“I hope they teach the boys that there’s nothing wrong with our body,” she said. “It’s natural, just like theirs. There’s no reason why our body should have to be censored and theirs are OK.”
Fabre said she and other parents attended a school board workshop on Tuesday, where the school code of conduct was discussed.
Changes were proposed to the student code of conduct, which include dress code changes, Langston said on Tuesday.
“There was quite a bit of public comment,” she said. The school board chair said he wanted a “committee to be created to review dress code overall,” Langston said.
Langston told CNN that no action is taken at workshops, only the school board meetings which happen the second Tuesday of every month. There is a vote slated on the code of conduct for June 8.
“The Student Code of Conduct contains a portion on dress code and there are some revisions to it this year,” Langston said. “Every year the Student Code of Conduct is reviewed around this time of year.”
The school is offering a full refund to parents who contact the school about the yearbook issue, Langston said. Yearbooks that are heavily written in will only receive a partial refund.
CNN’s Tina Burnside and Alisha Ebrahimji contributed to this report.