‘Don’t tell me I’m a distraction,’ Fort Mill girls, parents tell school board

More than 100 Fort Mill parents and students piled into the board room and overflow space during the school board meeting Tuesday. Students and adults wore shirts with the words “I am not a distraction” in black and red ink.

The group is fighting to change a dress code they believe unfairly targets girls and is not consistently enforced, The Herald previously reported.

The parents’ online petition to ”create a fair and realistic dress code for students in Fort Mill public schools” had gathered more than 5,640 signatures as of Wednesday morning.

The parents’ efforts started after Fort Mill resident Mindy Neal’s 13-year-old daughter Amaya Neal was pulled out of class for dress code violations multiple times during the first week of school.

Amaya also wore an “I am not a distraction” T-shirt to Tuesday’s meeting.

“It’s about empowering women to speak out about the dress code and the policies that are created,” Amaya said. “The dress code is outdated and needs to be changed to fit modern times and modern clothing.”

Change may be coming.

Kristy Spears, Fort Mill school board chair, said during Tuesday’s meeting she has asked administration to review the policy and it’s implementation this year and “ensure it is being applied equally regardless of gender.”

“I want to thank everyone for coming out tonight and sharing your views on this topic. Tonight and over the last two weeks, we have heard comments and opinions, concerns and support for the dress code policy from students, parents and community members,” Spears said at the meeting and again in a prepared statement.

“With a district of our size, now over 17,000 students, it’s to be expected that views cover the full range of the spectrum, and it is our job to find a solution that will best serve students in our district,” she said.

Dress codes for public schools are decided on a local level, said Ryan Brown, spokesperson with the South Carolina Department of Education. While many districts have a district-wide policy, some schools may choose to enact uniforms or other policies that differ from the district’s, Brown said.

Multiple Fort Mill parents addressed the school board Tuesday.

Jason Dayton told the board the petition aims to “ensure our daughters are not treated as distractions, being measured and judged in the process.”

Father of five Marc DeJesus said his daughter, an eighth grade student at Banks Trail Middle, was dress coded the first week of school for wearing a shirt that was too short with her leggings.

“I understand the need for modesty in school,” DeJesus said. “I understand the need for a dress code and the convenience of a dress code that is a one size fits all. The problem with that is our children aren’t one size.”

Megan Drew, who has a daughter in sixth grade and another child in fourth, said the parent group conducted a community survey and got back more than 100 personal stories related to dress code violations, mainly from girls and women.

Drew read four of the stories to the board. They shared themes of girls feeling “uncomfortable,” “embarrassed” and “awkward.”

“We had kids who graduated in 2001 respond to our survey about how it has continued to impact them throughout their lifetime,” Drew said. “We really want to bring that to the forefront.”

Drew said her daughter Lucy, a sixth grade student at Banks Trail Middle School, is feeling the stress during her first year in middle school.

“Every morning she worries about if her clothes will be OK to wear or not,” Drew said. “She is very into school and learning and the last thing she wants is to miss school.”

Lucy, 11, addressed the board.

“Don’t tell me that I am a distraction. I am a human girl who tries her best in school and wants to be successful in life,” she said. “I come to school every day to get smarter, not to fill my head with thoughts that I could get dress coded for wearing shorts, leggings or even being me.”

Lucy said she hopes parents and district leaders can come together to enact change.

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Amanda Harris covers issues related to children and families in York, Chester and Lancaster County for The Herald. Amanda works with local schools, parents and community members to address important topics such as school security, mental health and the opioid epidemic. She graduated from Winthrop University.
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