Does the U.S. Constitution cover a Florida high school girl who shows up for classes without wearing a bra under her shirt?
This is not an idle question. The girl is Lizzy Martinez, a 17-year-old junior who went to her Braden River High School classes one day last month in a loose, dark T-shirt and jeans. She Tweeted about what happened next.
“I decided not to wear a bra today and got pulled out of class (because) one of my teachers complained that it was a ‘distraction to boys in my class.’ ” she wrote. “My school basically told me that boys’ education is far more important than mine and I should be ashamed of my body.”
After being sent to the dean’s office, Martinez was given a T-shirt to wear under her shirt. After putting it on, Martinez was told that wasn’t good enough.
She sent the girl to the nurse’s office to get four adhesive strips, and told her to make an X-pattern on each breast to cover her nipples.
Martinez was upset, and she later Tweeted “stop sexualizing my body” to her high school’s Twitter page. The high school responded by blocking the girl’s Twitter account.
And by that night, the girl’s mother began complaining to the school’s principal, the Manatee County School Board and the district superintendent for the way her daughter was treated.
School district officials would later defend the actions of administrators by saying that although the school dress code doesn’t address girls not wearing bras, it does say that students are not permitted to wear attire that is “indecent” or “disrupts the ordinary learning environment.”
In Palm Beach County’s public schools, distracting or disrupting clothing has been interpreted to include a Confederate flag T-shirt and a beaded necklace of the Cuban flag. And in one case, a teacher was sanctioned for wearing an Obama T-shirt to school after a presidential election.
But as for underwear, it’s usually only mentioned as a violation if it is worn over the student’s clothing. In Martinez’s school district, it just says, “all undergarments must be covered.”
It doesn’t say anything about not wearing them. But that may now change. As a result of what happened to Martinez, Diana Greene, the Manatee County Schools Superintendent, has recommended that the dress code be amended to explicitly require girls to wear bras.
Martinez, who missed days of school over this issue, decided to fight back. And she, like many young people, had become galvanized to action by the February mass shooting of students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
After that school shooting, she posted on Twitter:
“I’m completely sickened that we live in a country that is run by such money-hungry people who would rather watch people get murdered, rather than take action to prevent such horrific tragedies.”
She followed it with the hashtags “NeverAgain,” “Gun Reform Now” and “Kill The NRA.”
And she retweeted former President Barack Obama’s shout-out to the student activism after Parkland, which said in part, “Young people have helped lead all our great movements.”
So I guess you could say Martinez was already primed for protest when the bra episode happened to her.
So she organized a protest at her school, giving it the hashtag “Bracott.”
“Show support for the destigmatization of natural bodies” she posted online in a graphically designed poster.
As part of the Bracott, she urged girls to clip bras on their backpacks, while instructing boys to put adhesive strips on their shirts on top of their nipples.
The school reacted quickly by sending a note home to parents, and putting out the word that students could face out-of-school suspensions and lose their ability to attend the school prom if they participated in the Bracott.
The protest fizzled. But by then Martinez and her beef with the school district had become a national story. She was featured in a story by The New York Times, and lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union took up her cause.
On Monday, lawyers for the ACLU sent an eight-page letter to the girl’s school district that outlined why “enforcing the dress code selectively against female students, and doing so in a manner that reinforces invidious sex stereotypes” is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Requiring girls to wear bras “reflects overly broad and archaic generalizations about boys’ inability to control their sexual impulses and girls’ inability to make their own decisions about the clothing that makes them feel safe and comfortable,” the ACLU letter said.
“These stereotypes reinforce a culture of victim blaming in which schools convey the message to female students that they are at fault for experiencing sexual harassment if they make certain clothing choices.”
The letter calls for the school district to remove the prohibition in its dress code for “personal attire or grooming (that) distracts the attention of other students or teachers from their school work.”