Fla. principal bans yearbook photo of female student in tuxedo

FLORIDA — The senior photo of a tuxedo-clad Kelli Davis, a Fleming Island High School student, has been banned from the yearbook by principal Sam Ward, who claimed the photo was not “uniform.” Yearbook editor Kari Sewell was also fired for her opposition to Ward’s decision.

Ward said he banned the photo because Davis broke the longstanding tradition in Clay County that female students wear black drapes and male students wear tuxedo jackets and bow ties in senior photos, for reasons of “uniformity” and “formality.”

At the Feb. 24 Clay County School Board meeting, the school superintendent, David Owens, upheld the principal’s decision.

Davis’ mother, Cindi Davis, said the situation started in late October when Kelli heard rumors from students that her picture would not be published in the yearbook. Ward confirmed the hearsay. Davis then appealed Ward’s decision to the school board.

Ward said maintaining uniformity is important for future senior class photos.

“I’m not going to get into one of these deals where down the road we have a class clown who wants to wear the drape to be funny,” Ward said. “We’re going to stick to males dress this way, females dress that way.”

“If there’s any problem with a drape, there’s several adjustments. [Girls] can double-drape or wear a turtleneck under the drape,” Ward added.

Davis disagreed with Ward’s decision on the basis that there was not a written dress code for senior photos.

Ward said the school does not plan to create a written dress code for senior photos because the expected dress is “common knowledge” to students.

Sewell also disagreed with Ward’s reasoning.

“Kelli was given two options and she made the decision between the two. She didn’t bring anything from outside in,” Sewell said. “The drape’s not the type of outfit Kelli would wear. That’s just not her at all.”

Sewell was editor of the yearbook from September through Feb. 23. Sewell said she attended a series of meetings during January with Ward and the yearbook adviser, Sarah Kaneer, but was never told she was being fired as editor until Kaneer announced her dismissal from the yearbook class at the Feb. 23 meeting. Kaneer claimed that Sewell was fired for keeping Davis’ photo in after being told to take it out, according to Sewell.

But Sewell said she was fired because of her opinion that Davis’ picture should be permitted in the yearbook.

Calls to Kaneer were not returned.

Karen Doering, a lawyer for the Florida-based National Center for Lesbian Rights, defended a student in 2002 who filed a lawsuit against Robinson High School in Tampa, Fla., for banning her senior picture of her in a tuxedo. The eventual settlement upheld the principal’s right to set a dress code for senior photos but also allowed students to appeal it.

Doering said she believes Davis would have a strong legal case, based on reports she has read.

“I think the school board has definitely crossed the line into illegal conduct,” Doering said. “They’ve engaged in unlawful sex discrimination and sex stereotyping and have now opened themselves up to potential legal liability. I believe [Davis and her family] have a very good chance of winning based on the facts of the case.”

Davis’ mother said she and Kelli looked into legal action but decided against it.

“It would have been a long, drawn-out battle for Kelli and the point was to get her picture in the front of the yearbook with the rest of the seniors,” Cindi Davis said.

Davis’ mother purchased a two-page ad in the back of the yearbook where Davis’ tuxedo picture will appear instead.

Davis, who is a lesbian, believes the media has focused more on her homosexuality than on her senior photo.

“This is not a sexual issue or a gay rights issue. It’s a human rights issue,” Davis’ mother said. “The picture was not a statement of ‘I’m different.’ The tux is just what Kelli felt comfortable in.”

–By Britt Hulit