Fla. School Criticized After Girls’ Yearbook Photos Edited to Cover Chests: 'Overzealous'
Bartram Trail High School in St. Johns County has said they will offer refunds, but will not reissue the yearbooks
A Florida high school is facing backlash — and pushes by the community for change — after the yearbook photos of dozens of female students were digitally altered to be more modest.
Bartram Trail High School in St. Johns County handed out their annual yearbooks on Wednesday, and students were shocked to find their school photos had been hastily edited without their knowledge.
Among those students was Zoe Iannone, a freshman whose hair had just started growing back after she lost it to disease when she had her portrait snapped in September.
"She went to trouble to look nice that day. She knew she couldn't control for her hair, so she wanted to control for other variables," Zoe's mom Amanda Emery tells PEOPLE.
Emery says Zoe, 15, was initially shocked to find that her chest had been covered in a poor digital editing job, and soon felt "gross" upon realizing that the editing process meant that her body had now been brought to the attention of others.
"If they hadn't done that, there wouldn't be any attention on it," Emery says. "She just felt disgusted, really, and she felt sexualized. Her question is, why is somebody at the school looking at a photograph of me as a 14-year-old girl and seeing something inappropriate and sexual when I was not out of dress code? That's most troubling to her."
Riley O'Keefe, 15, had a similar thought when she first noticed that her yearbook photo had a black bar placed over her chest, her mom Amanda Fabre tells PEOPLE.
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"She said she started flipping through the pages and it was just kind of outrage. She said, 'Mom, I wanted to cry,'" says Fabre. "It's just so sad — they butchered these girls' pictures. And it created a problem where there was none."
Fabre says Riley, who hopes to one day become a lawyer, was wearing the exact same shirt as she was in the photo on the day the yearbook came out, so Fabre took her back to the school to ask the assistant principal if Riley was violating the school's code of conduct. Fabre says she was told that Riley was dressed in accordance with the dress code.
Emery, too, says that her daughter Zoe's outfit was not in violation of the school's code of conduct, which states that female students' tops and shirts "must cover the entire shoulder and they must be modest and not revealing or distracting."
The school's website states that all individual student pictures in the yearbook must be consistent with the code of conduct or risk being digitally adjusted.
"They feel like they're being sexualized by the school," says Fabre. "Somebody had to be the authority to make these decisions regarding their bodies. My daughter is like, 'Mom, it's gross that someone would look at my ninth grade picture and that would be the first thing they would see.'"
St. Johns County School Superintendent Tim Forson tells PEOPLE in a statement that there was "not sufficient review" of the steps taken before the decision to edit select photos was made, and that the district will work with the staff member involved to "change how we determine the contents of the yearbook in the years ahead."
"Certainly, there has never been an intent to embarrass or shame any student for the clothes that they wear," Forson said. "Unfortunately, we are learning a valuable lesson in the importance of process and understanding that the intent is not always the result."
Still, the school's response has been disappointing for some, including Emery and Fabre, who say that not only have they not received an apology, but that the school will not be reissuing the yearbooks sans edits.
District spokesperson Christina Langston confirms to PEOPLE that the school has offered refunds, but does not plan to reprint the yearbooks.
"They're ninth-grade girls coming into their own, and coming into a sense of who they are – their self-image, their confidence, their uniqueness, what makes them them," says Fabre. "We have a responsibility to teach our kids respect and timeliness… and we're filling our duties to the school. But they're not doing the same."
Adds Emery: "It's completely subjective. This is somebody's overreaching, overzealous body-shaming of girls going through puberty. Puberty is in control of these girls' bodies. We dress them within the dress codes and they still did this to them."
Both moms say that they are proud of their daughters for fighting back and using their platforms for change against the "discriminatory" policies, especially considering many of the other girls who had their photos edited have been teased and bullied over the tweaks.
The women plan to attend a workshop school board meeting on Tuesday ahead of a meeting on June 8 that will include a vote on the code of conducts.
"The school needs to acknowledge this publicly — make an announcement and empathize and show some compassion," says Fabre. "They also have to reissue these yearbooks… but the overarching big picture is our dress code issues and the gender discrimination, the sexualization of these girls, and how they're walking around with targets on their back."