Last week, Gail Morgan-Smith posted a Facebook status that quickly lit up people’s timelines. She shared this post accompanied by three pictures of her daughter, high school student Caitlin Morgan-Smith’s, Civvies Day outfit.
The Facebook post
"Civvies Day, at TrinityHouse High School, Little Falls, where Caitlin Morgan-Smith was forced to sit in sick bay and was refused access to class because she was inappropriately dressed. I was called to the school. Told - there are male teachers, male gardeners and male students and her attire was inappropriate. Exposing a portion of her stomach, when she lifted both her arms was unacceptable and in actual fact the way young girls dress today was disgusting"
Caitlin was wearing a pair of jeans, sandals and a burgundy top showing a tiny portion of her sides, which rode up when she lifted her arms.
The post continued:
“Body shaming young woman because men are unable to control themselves is not a solution to a rape culture society that we continue to cultivate (it seems)."
She also wrote that she was only sharing this on Facebook "because I feel continuing to blame woman on the unacceptable behaviour of certain men is not the solution."
We cannot help but agree.
A mother's fury
Gail told W24 that her daughter was pulled from assembly at 7:45am and was told to go to the principal’s office. The head of the department told her it was because she was breaking school rules - apparently her outfit was deemed inappropriate and disrespectful.
“She was not allowed to go home nor was she allowed to return to class until she changed tops. They told her at first they’d get her a more appropriate top from lost property. Which she refused.”
Gail was contacted and arrived at the school just over half and hour later as she had to drive back.
She said the headmistress arrived and told Caitlin three times that her outfit was offensive. Gail said she saw nothing wrong or offensive about her daughter's outfit.
“I asked her to explain exactly what was offensive and who she had offended, to which she replied emphatically that she was personally offended by Caitlin’s outfit and that there were ‘male teachers, male gardeners and male students’ to consider.
"She went on to say that the way girls dressed today was disgusting."
The school ended up offering Caitlin an alternative – an oversized white t-shirt.
Gail continues, “we (her and I ), after putting the huge t-shirt on agreed she should try and tie it at the back to make it at least slightly more presentable/acceptable/fashionable.”
Yet, still two separate teachers (again female) told her to untie it as it was not acceptable. At that stage, Gail says, her daughter's stomach was completely covered.
This is not about enforcing school rules
Gail told W24 that a few people responded to her post saying the incident happened because her daughter was not adhering to school rules. Yet, Gail says the note the school sent out regarding dress codes only forbid tights and very short shorts.
And what happens when school rules are archaic and blatantly unfair - should one abide by them?
Last year Pretoria Girls High School came under fire for allegedly prohibiting girls to wear their hair in African hairstyles.
Girls and women are strictly policed for their hemlines, while boys and men have little to no such guidelines.
This sexist approach upheld by the high school extends to many facets of rape culture which blame victims for everything from occupying space late at night, to being drunk, to being confrontational, to dressing in a way that is "asking for it".
Just last year it came to light that a local life orientation textbook was teaching learners to analyse the events that led up to a fictional character, Angie's, rape. Instead of laying the blame where it's supposed to be - with the rapist, the textbook insinuated that Angie's behaviour lead to her rape.
Ironically, the very next day after Caitlin was reprimanded, the school shared a picture of a topless male swimmer on their Facebook page. This is of course perfectly normal - a pupil should be allowed to be celebrated in a normal, non-creepy way. So why if a young man can proudly show skin without shame, would they treat a young girl in a manner to make her feel embarrassed?
Boys are allowed to wear tank tops that expose large parts of their torsos and very short shorts, but girls need to cover up. What message is that sending? Why are we telling young women that their bodies are shameful? Why are we telling young women that men can't control themselves? If a male teacher is turned on by a student in jeans and a top showing a bit of midriff he is the one who is behaving inappropriately, not she.
When the headmistress of a school shames a pupil for being dressed in a manner that she thinks invites the male gaze, this enforces the idea that women are to blame for men's bad behaviour.
Give men a bit more credit
But since none of the male teachers, or pupils or gardeners objected to the student's attire, one wonders if these men aren't being used as scapegoats.
I am certain the majority of male teachers would never dream of sexualising their pupils. And those who do should bear the blame. And not a young girl who went to school in jeans and a pretty top.
The school responds
Last week a statement published by the school on Facebook read: "Trinity House condemns any form of sexual violence, body shaming and victimisation... At no time did the principal say that victims of sexual assault are to blame for sexual assault. She also neither condoned nor perpetuated body shaming."
On 23 February, the school posted another statement on their Facebook page:
"Due to continued media interest, we feel the need to share this statement from Andries van Renssen, GM of Trinityhouse again. Again, we thank our school community for the support we have received.
"Civvies days at Trinityhouse are subject to the same dress codes of acceptability that apply to a normal school day. These dress codes are familiar to all pupils.
"On February 14, 2017 (a civvies day) a Grade 12 pupil came to school in obvious violation of the dress rules. She was called aside during morning assembly and told her shirt was not acceptable.
"Every effort was made to manage the situation discreetly and away from her fellow-pupils. She was offered an alternative shirt to wear. She declined this offer. She was tearful and said that she wanted to go home, upon which the Grade Head replied that it was not necessary. She also said that she was feeling unwell. As she did not attend school the previous day due to illness, she was given the opportunity to wait for her mother, whom she phoned, in the sick bay. Again a brand new shirt was offered to her. Again she declined it.
"The mother arrived at the school a short while later.
"The mother and the Principal had a short conversation during which the rationale for the dress code and the difference between attire for weekends and acceptable attire for school was discussed.
"The pupil’s mother was told that her daughter had been offered a different shirt to wear and would not be permitted into class wearing the shirt she had come to school in that morning.
"The situation was resolved quickly. The pupil chose to accept a brand new shirt from the Principal in the presence of her mother. She went to her lessons appropriately dressed, after having missed no more than the first period of the day. The school day continued as normal.
"Trinityhouse condemns any form of sexual violence, body shaming and victimisation. Pupils are addressed on these issues in lessons, in informal discussion, and in the very culture of equality and mutual respect that is pervasive at Trinityhouse. At no time did the principal say that victims of sexual assault are to blame for sexual assault. She also neither condoned nor perpetuated body shaming. She did however say that school was a learning environment and that the way one dresses needs to be conducive to learning.
"Trinityhouse regrets that this incident has reached the public domain. The school is confident, however that the issue (the first of its kind) was addressed in the most appropriate fair and reasonable manner.
"The pupil’s mother has had no further interaction with the school management on the matter. This is regrettable. She has, however, been vocal on social media."
W24 contacted Little Falls Trinityhouse High School yesterday and is still awaiting comment. We will update the story as soon as we get a response.