Utah students protested body-shaming after homecoming dress code. Now their teacher is calling them a ‘mob.’

The students at American Leadership Academy say they wanted to speak out against body-shaming that they say happened at the dance.

Natalia Burton, who was told she couldn't enter the dance because the front of her dress was too low; she was voted homecoming queen.

A teacher at a Utah charter school chastised students for protesting a dress code they felt body-shamed girls at their homecoming dance, suggesting that the students overreacted and formed a “mob” when they were the ones “intentionally pushing the limit.”

In a four-page letter sent to student leaders Tuesday, the teacher at American Leadership Academy in Spanish Fork said he believes no students were criticized for their body type at the dance — only for what they were wearing — and then compared it to him telling his wife what outfits look bad on her.

“If saying that a dress doesn’t look right on someone is body-shaming, then I’ve been body-shaming my wife for years,” he wrote, “because I’m honest when she wants to know how a dress looks on her, and I tell her when it isn’t her best look.”

The teacher, who oversees the student government team at the charter, also said he wouldn’t have felt comfortable sending his daughters out in some of the dresses and questioned why any girl would think she “can only be beautiful if she wears the skimpiest possible dress and shows the maximum allowable amount of skin.” That’s not what any of the protesting students have said.

The teacher added: “People claim to be victims more often than it is really true.”

And any student leaders, he said, who want to continue speaking out against the school’s administration should resign from their positions.

Students at the school shared the letter with The Salt Lake Tribune this week, saying they feel it was sexist, distorted what they were speaking out against and added to the poor treatment and judgment they say they’ve already faced there.

The Tribune has chosen to redact a reference the teacher made to his own child and his name.

The letter is the latest in efforts by the school to defend its dress code enforcement, which has drawn widespread attention after several girls reported they were not allowed into the dance on Saturday because of their dresses. In a second letter sent by the administration to all students and parents Wednesday night, the school said the dress code helps “to promote a safe and healthy environment” and that it was “reasonable and fair.”

Some girls said, though, that administrators made disparaging comments about their bodies when telling them they couldn’t come inside, including one girl who said a school official told her that “my boobs were too big for my dress.”

They say no boys were held back.

“When I got there and they told me I couldn’t go in, it was heartbreaking,” said Natalia Burton, 17, a senior who was named homecoming queen the day before the dance. She said she was told her dress was too low-cut in the front, even though her chest was covered.

Many girls say they felt the dress code was arbitrarily enforced and used to make them feel bad about their body size. Some students held a peaceful protest before school Monday, where girls wore their homecoming dresses and carried signs that said, “We love our bodies” and “Stop body shaming.”

As school dance season kicks off for kids across the country, they said they wanted to talk about the harm that dress codes can cause and how they believe the requirements unfairly shame girls.

(Students at American Leadership Academy) A number of female students at American Leadership Academy in Spanish Fork were told their dresses did not abide by a dress code at a homecoming dance on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. The following Monday, they decided to wear their dresses outside the school in protest. Natalia Burton is seen on the right in this photo.

Students question uneven enforcement

When Burton first got to the dance about an hour after it started, she said she was confused by the line of about 30 girls standing outside. Some were crying.

One girl, she said, explained to her: “I don’t know if you’ll be able to get in. They’re dress-coding so many people.”

As Burton and her date got up to the table to present their tickets, she said, she was told the same. “We can see your whole chest. You can’t go in,” she remembers the administrator remarking.

Burton said she stood there for a minute, listening to other girls talk about what happened to them and listening to the administration’s comments on those who came after her.

“When they started to critique bodies, I was just done,” she said. “The way they were talking to other students and my friends about their bodies was not OK.”

Sarah Bennett, 16, who is a senior and the student body president for American Leadership Academy, said a friend told her that she got her dress preapproved by the administration by showing a picture of it ahead of time. When she got there, Bennett said, her friend was not allowed inside and told that she “doesn’t have the same body as the model and cannot wear the same dress.”

Another girl, she said, added extra fabric to the front of her dress in alterations before the dance to cover more of her chest and was also not let inside. Two girls came in the same dress but only the more petite girl was allowed inside, Bennett said.

“It just got really out of hand really fast,” Bennett said. “And it didn’t seem like they were enforcing the actual dress code.”

(Natalia Burton) A number of female students at American Leadership Academy in Spanish Fork were told their dresses did not abide by a dress code at a homecoming dance on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. The following Monday, they decided to wear their dresses outside the school in protest.

American Leadership Academy, which has about 1,600 students K-12, does have a strict dress code for class attendance on a normal day — requiring uniforms in only approved colors, socks that must match, no “tight fitting” or “low riding” pants and minimal jewelry. “Shirts must be buttoned to a modest level,” too, and “all shorts, skirts, and skorts may not be shorter than 1 inch above the knee.”

It includes a note that students must “present a modest, clean and neat appearance at all times.” The code says that decisions on what violates the policy will be determined by the administration.

Included on the same page are the requirements for school dance attire — where many students, Burton said, feel they have a chance to show their personality outside of their uniform. That code notes that all dresses must have straps, necklines “must be cut in a modest way so that no cleavage is showing” and all bras must be covered, among other requirements for girls.

It adds: “Because of differing body types, the same dress may be acceptable on one person, but not on another. … Please do not put school administrators in the difficult position of upholding school standards or let yourself or your date be embarrassed by being called out for violating our school’s dress code and asked to leave the dance.”

The only requirement that seems to be targeted to boys says that going “shirtless or unbuttoned shirts” are prohibited.

In a video with Bennett, Julia Rentschler, the student body vice president, said she was not allowed in because administrators told her the hem of her dress was too short. The school’s guidelines said it must be “no shorter than the student’s fingertips when hands rest at their side.”

Rentschler wore the shimmery blue dress in the video, which has since been shared and viewed thousands of times. The dress sits just past her fingertips.

Girls, including her, Rentschler said, “were humiliated and belittled because they met the guidelines.”

Administrators defend ‘an important part of our school culture’

Bennett, who wore a suit, was let inside the dance and was frustrated when she said administrators tried to use her as an example of what girls should wear. She remembers being told: “I wish all the girls could cover up like you.”

Bennett said: “That’s insane. I was covered from head to toe. Not everybody wants to wear a suit.”

One girl, she noticed, had put a white T-shirt under her dress so she could be admitted. Another put a zip-up jacket over her dress.

At first, Burton, the homecoming queen, tried to get a little dance started in the parking lot. She found a small speaker and another student turned on their truck headlights. But the administration, she said, shut it down. They tried to move to the football field, but were again told they couldn’t, she said.

In the letter sent to parents, American Leadership Academy said school officials reviewed video tape and counted 14 students turned away.

Both Bennett and Burton said they counted around 60 girls who they say were told they couldn’t attend the dance because of the dress code. Burton, who took photos of many of the girls who were turned away, said she has more images than 14. “I definitely know it’s not 14. That’s quite upsetting,” Bennett said.

In its letter, the school ticked through each allegation it says the students made, including that students were targeted by body type and the administration of the dress code was inconsistent. It denies that. “The video footage shows the dress code administration was done the same for each student,” the letter states.

When The Tribune reached out to ask questions — including about the separate letter sent by the student government teacher — the school responded by providing the same letter sent to parents as its response.

The school’s letter does acknowledge: “One parent was there with their student when they were denied access and felt that the communication needs to be kinder when talking about such sensitive issues as body and dress. The school will do training for individuals working the dance as dress code monitors.”

American Leadership Academy also said that it “sincerely expresses regret that any student interpreted the enforcement of the dress code as an intent to body shame any of the students.” But it adds as the last sentence of the letter that the code “has been and remains an important part of our school culture.”

The students who spoke with The Tribune said they’re fine with a dress code, but want “just and fair guidelines that are applied equally.”

A protest and a teacher’s letter

Bennett and other student leaders met with administrators Sunday night, she said, to discuss that request; but the students felt ignored and talked over, she said.

“They kept saying, ‘If this is true … If that was really said … If they felt that,’” Bennett said. “They acted like it wasn’t real. So we felt we needed to do something.”

Bennett said the Monday protest stayed civil and wasn’t meant to attack the administration or the school, but to show “we are all beautiful and don’t deserve the degrading, body shaming behavior that happened.”

A few teachers joined them, she said, as did students from nearby high schools in Payson and Spanish Fork.

After the protest, Burton said, high school Principal Rich Morley spoke with her and other students in his office. In a video recorded by a student and shared it with The Tribune, Morley plays footage from the dance and tells the students that not many girls were dress-coded.

Burton counters that girls with bigger chests were targeted in the video. Morley says: “I’ve seen several big-busted girls come in.”

He then tells Burton she’s being disrespectful and asks her and the other students to leave.

Burton said now: “I don’t even want to go to school. This is so upsetting.”

The separate letter from the student government teacher, she said, just made her feel worse.

In that, the teacher said he’s “deeply disappointed at the choice of response” by students to protest.

“That nuclear option, by the way, has resulted in an outpouring of hate and vituperation on social media, a multitude of unpleasant communications to administration, and ALA employees wondering whether they will have to get attorneys or find other jobs — and likely some people who will think twice about sending their kids to school here,” the teacher wrote.

The more “mature” thing to do, he argued, would have been to go home and change and come back to the dance wearing something more appropriate. “There were perfectly attractive and beautiful dresses at the dance that weren’t anywhere close to violating the code,” he said.

He concluded the letter by stating that student leaders who can accept “the administration as partners who want to help you achieve good things and grow, not as adversaries or as the enemy” should stay on. But those who cannot should step down.

He gave those who chose to stay a list of “lessons” to be learned from the event, including dealing with disappointment and “the danger of mob behavior.”

In an aside, the teacher wrote: “Yes, even though no physical damage was done, this was a mob — I experienced it from the inside and it was alarming.”

The teacher did not respond to an email Thursday from The Tribune seeking comment.

A gender studies perspective

Ana Carolina Antunes, a gender studies professor at the University of Utah, sees dress code enforcement as part of the larger issue of bodily autonomy in America.

If women are the subject of objectification by the people around them, Antunes said, it’s not their responsibility to stop it by covering up more, especially if the extra attention is coming because of the shape of their body.

“If someone has bigger breasts or wider hips, of course clothes are going to fall different on them,” she said. “… But we are blaming folks for wearing clothes when in reality the issue is how people are seeing the clothes on their bodies.”

She added: “People looking at those bodies have agency, too. They can recognize that these are young people who are trying to have fun and feel comfortable in their own bodies. Whatever meaning they put on those bodies is on them and not on the young people.”

Strict dress codes, she said, tend to show the lack of trust adults sometimes have in young people.

She believes often one of the hardest parts for school officials working with teens is “to recognize that they have agency to make their own decisions, even if those decisions aren’t the same ones you would make.”

The role of supervising adults should be to give children the resources they need to be successful, she said, and support the choices they make along the way.

It seems like the tide is changing in some places toward dress codes, including in Utah.

West High School in Salt Lake City updated its clothing policy at the start of this school year to move away from more stringent requirements. It now allows clothing typically banned at other schools, including sleeveless tops, hats, hoodies and pajama pants.

The only things remaining off-limits are: depictions or language that promotes violence or illegal activities, gang attire, and swimsuits or underwear as outer clothing. But if students show their midriff or the waistband of their underwear waistbands, it’s not an issue.

In their own display of wearing what they want, some students at American Leadership Academy are now planning their own private homecoming to make up for the dance they weren’t allowed to attend.

Burton said that will happen on Oct. 8 at an off-campus venue where “everyone can wear what they want and feel beautiful in.”

She hopes that the charter will change its attitude moving forward, but she’s also heard some talk about the school possibly no longer holding dances because of the negative publicity.

Whatever happens, she said, “I knew when I put on my homecoming dress it was the right dress. And I felt so beautiful. And they can’t take that away.”