After a weekend in Orlando, 17-year-old Lizzie Martinez decided to go easy on her sunburned shoulders. So she went to school, Braden River High in Bradenton, Fla., without a bra under her oversize, gray, long-sleeved T-shirt. Those straps can sting when they rub against a sunburn!
“I just expected to make it through a normal day,” Martinez tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I didn’t think anything of it.”
But during the day, Martinez says school dean Violeta Velazquez called Martinez into her office and told her a teacher heard a boy in her class laughing and telling his friends about her lack of bra.
“I never heard anybody,” Martinez says. Velazquez had her put on an undershirt and then asked Martinez to stand up and move around, according to the teen. Not satisfied with the solution, Martinez says the dean asked the nurse to get her four Band-Aids and told her to go to the bathroom and “X-out her nipples.”
“I got a text message from Lizzy that said, ‘I feel completely sexualized and I’m so embarrassed,’” Martinez’s mother, Kari Knop, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Knop left work and picked her daughter up from school right away. “If this was a male dean, we would not even be having this discussion to try to justify the behavior.”
Over the course of three conversations with school administrators, Knop says she heard different variations on the story — because her daughter hadn’t violated any dress code rule, she wasn’t in trouble, but they also said that she was a “distraction.”
“What about the kid that was supposedly cackling in the class?” Knop said she asked during a meeting with the dean, the principal, and a representative of the school board. “That’s social bullying. Did we address that? You have a zero tolerance for bullying in the school.”
Martinez asked her mother to take their story to the local media to address the issue of body-shaming girls.
“The dean told me it was to save myself from my own embarrassment,” Martinez says. “If it truly was that, the students that were talking about me, that should have been addressed and not me, because I wasn’t the issue. I felt like they were shaming me into believing that I was the issue because I have a larger amount of breast tissue than most people at my school.”
The school district has admitted that the dean’s way of addressing Martinez was wrong.
“It is undisputed that this matter should have been handled differently at the school level, and corrective measures have been taken to prevent a reoccurrence in the way these matters will be addressed in the future,” Mitchell Teitelbaum, the district’s general counsel, told the Bradenton Herald in a prepared statement.
Knop tells Yahoo Lifestyle that school district Superintendent Diana Greene said in a phone conversation that she wanted to change the dress code to require girls to wear undergarments to avoid this kind of dispute in the future. Knop and her daughter don’t think this would be fair, either.
“Not that I’m going to start a whole revolution about it, but if girls don’t feel comfortable wearing bras, or whatever the case may be, I don’t think they need to be held up to a standard that they have to,” Martinez says.
Martinez is one of many students across the country who have been taking a stand against dress code rules that, at least in practice, some argue tend to discriminate against girls and children of color. Education and child psychology experts disagree with these schools’ justification that they’re protecting students from distraction.
“It’s much more disruptive, not just of that child’s education but of all children’s education, to pull that kid out, to have him and his peers buzzing about, ‘Is his hair going to get him in trouble?’” Deborah Gilboa, MD, a family physician and parenting expert, told Yahoo Lifestyle recently. “That drives a wedge between the educators and the students, and puts them on opposite sides of an issue that doesn’t have to be an issue.”
Martinez, who attended the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., in March, has taken inspiration from the student activists from Parkland, Fla.
There’s a valuable lesson kids can learn when they question the rules, whether they’re about gun control, dress codes, or something else that affects their lives, Gilboa said.
“Teaching kids how to create change within the systems in which they live, respectfully — that’s an incredibly useful skill,” she said.
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