A Columbus High student's online petition has attracted more than 1,400 supporters after she and dozens of other females were given in-school suspension for violating the dress code at last week's holiday social.
The event is among the requirements for students attending the liberal arts magnet school, which this year was ranked No. 1 in Georgia by the Daily Beast and No. 4 in the state by U.S. News & World Report.
Jada Reese, a 16-year-old junior, claims she was discriminated against because the punishments were inconsistently administered as some females in violation were let through and all males in violation were overlooked.
Jada confirmed to the Ledger-Enquirer she posted the petition, addressed to the U.S. Department of Education, on www.change.org. She makes several allegations:
During an assembly to explain the dress code before the social, the female students were given "about 25 rules" and the males "about two rules."
"The entire assembly we were ridiculed and humiliated about our bodies in front of the entire junior and senior class," Jada wrote. "They called up 'volunteers,' about ten girls, all in different dresses. They picked them apart and shamed them for their dresses. The girls were not aware this would happen. Later, I asked one and they said they were 'paid' with gift cards to do this."
At the social Thursday night in the Columbus Convention & Trade Center, attended by more than 1,300 students and staff, female students were directed to line up to have their dresses and shoes checked while boys were allowed to walk in without inspection.
"At one point, it was a male teacher checking us," Jada wrote. " This included pulling our coats off to check strap sizes, pulling our dresses up to check heel sizes, and generally humiliating us."
Those deemed in possible violation were sent to another line, where teachers with rulers were the final judges. Heels couldn't be higher than 2 inches, dress straps couldn't be thinner than 3 inches and dress lengths couldn't be more than 3 inches above the knees, Jada said.
Jada's heels were ruled too high, so her name was written on the list for in-school suspension.
"I watched as a girl, my friend who earlier compared heel sizes with me and found them to be THE SAME, got through," Jada wrote. " It was like we were entering a prisoner camp or the military. I went to the other table and found girls with heels way smaller than girls getting through getting in trouble."
Columbus High principal Marvin Crumbs and Muscogee County School District superintendent David Lewis weren't reached for comment. Valerie Fuller, the district's communication's director also declined to answer the Ledger-Enquirer's emailed questions. Instead, she sent the following statement:
"The Columbus High School Holiday Social is an annual event for students grades (9-12). All students and parents are informed on etiquette and the dress code well in advance of the annual event. The event is a school function. Students are subject to all rules of the district's Behavior Code and Discipline Policy Handbook. Any violators are subject to disciplinary consequences outlined by the policies, which all parents acknowledge and sign. "
In the petition, Jada wrote, "I've heard 100-200 girls got punished with ISS," and some were crying, she said. Fuller, however, said in a subsequent email the number "is believed to be about 30 violators."
Regardless, it is clear the dress code was unfairly enforced, Jada and her supporters contend. In fact, she said, boys in jeans and sweatpants were allowed into the social despite violating the dress code.
"That's incredible," she said. "Why did they single the girls out?"
The assembly to explain the dress code for the social was the week before the event, Jada said, meaning many female students already had bought their outfits, including her. So she knew her 3-inch heels were in violation, she said, "but I couldn't afford to buy another pair."
She also can't afford to serve the in-school suspension on a day when she will miss three Advanced Placement classes, Jada said.
Jada's father, Charles Reese, supports her protest.
"I graduated from Columbus High, and I'm a proud alum," said Reese, a member of the class of 1987, "but I do think females are treated differently, and it shouldn't be that way."
Reese said his daughter has no history of discipline problems and is on track for the Hope Scholarship.
"I'm very proud of what she's doing and the support she's getting," he said, "not just locally but from around the world. It's not just a local issue but a broader issue.
"She's 16 years old. She's not going to be loved with flowers and baskets by everybody for speaking out about this. There are going to be people who say nasty things about her. But when you stand up and do something like this, you keep going forward, and I'll hold her hand the whole way."
Lindsey Calhoun, a 17-year-old junior at Columbus High, admitted to the Ledger-Enquirer that her dress and heels violated the dress code, but she was allowed into the social without penalty.
"I walked straight in," she said.
Making her more bewildered, Lindsey said, Jada was next to her as they went through the inspection.
"We respect our school so much, we love Columbus High so much and our education, but we do not agree with how they handled this holiday social," Lindsey said. "We want an apology and dress code reform."
They are planning a rally to express those points before they return to school from winter break.
Columbus High senior Trey Alexander, 18, won’t be among the protesters. After seeing a first draft of this story at ledger-enquirer.com, he emailed a counter argument.
“The only reason the students were separated is that people walked in with large groups and tried to sneak by the people greeting and checking dress code,” Trey wrote.Students were notified in plenty of time to wear a proper outfit, he insisted.
“I know that money is tight and people can’t afford to buy another outfit,” he wrote, “but isn’t that what returns are for? We’ve had these rules and dress code for many years and it is just now becoming a problem.”
Trey also debated the assertion that the male students weren’t checked.
“When I walked in I witnessed the teachers eye down my whole body and say, ‘You look very nice and thank you for coming tonight. Nice to see you,’” he wrote. “I was checked and so were many of my peers. It just wasn't to the same extent because it wasn't as hard for us to break dress code.”
Trey commended the students “for standing up for what they believe in, but I do not want them to make our administrators look bad when they were just keeping us to that high standard that we are held to from the community. The social is a privilege that only CHS gets to experience and they should be able to follow the rules for two hours for only one night.”
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.