For 17-year-old Ahriah Baynes, track was her outlet. The 2021-2022 school year marked the first full year that the junior at Albany High School in New York was able to run since the pandemic disrupted her freshman outdoor season.
“When I was going through something, track was all I had and it made me feel better,” said Baynes, who jumps and runs the 100 and the 4×100 relay for her school.
That changed last week, when a disagreement over sports bras between the girls’ track team and the school district’s athletic director sparked a protest, a flurry of suspensions and accusations from the student-athletes of “blatant” discrimination.
For senior Alexis Hope Arango, that conversation was “the first time I’ve ever heard that a sports bra was inappropriate.” Arango, 17, said the issue never came up her last three years of running.
“The bottom line is this was sexist,” she said.
In a statement shared with the Albany Times Union, Albany City School Superintendent Kaweeda G. Adams said: “Members of the Albany High School girls’ track and field team served a suspension Friday due to inappropriate and disrespectful behavior directed toward an administrator. Their suspension was in no way related to wardrobe. It was entirely related to their inappropriate conduct, and in alignment with our Student Code of Conduct.”
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Controversies over school dress codes have been making headlines for years, and students are increasingly protesting such policies they deem sexist. According to researchers, rules can be enforced in uneven ways, and Black girls are disproportionately targeted.
This particular conflict began May 11 when, according to multiple members of the girls’ track team, Albany School District Athletic Director Ashley Chapple told them it was inappropriate to wear only sports bras during practice, because it was distracting to their male coaches. (Chapple did not respond to a request for comment.)
According to Baynes, when they pressed Chapple about her comments — noting their male counterparts were practicing shirtless, too — Chapple countered that it was against the school’s dress code because sports bras qualified as “underwear.”
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Baynes and others said they considered the clothing to be athletic attire. What’s more, they said, while the code of student conduct does bar students from wearing “extremely brief garments” such as tube tops, it did not explicitly say student-athletes couldn’t wear sports bras as tops during practice.
After discussing the issue with the girls and warning them not to practice shirtless again, Chapple approached the boys and told them they, too, would need to practice with their shirts on, the girls said.
Baynes was “disgusted” with Chapple’s initial reasoning: Their coaches never made them feel uncomfortable or like their clothing was inappropriate. It wasn’t unusual for boys and girls on the track and cross-country teams to practice shirtless on warm days or during long, intense workouts, the girls said.
The girls decided they would protest Chapple’s mandate: The next day, they would all wear just their sports bras and shorts.
“We wanted to make a statement … that the whole rule is sexist and misogynistic,” Baynes said.
Her school prohibited girls from wearing pants at graduation. So she fought back.
May 12 was one of the warmest days of the spring: 81 degrees and sunny. At the track, some boys were also working out shirtless, the girls said.
When Chapple spotted the track team, she walked up to the boys, giving them another warning to put their shirts on, according to the girls. But when she got around to the girls’ team, they were told they had to leave, they said.
On their way out, the girls tried to take a picture of themselves on the track, which Chapple didn’t allow, Baynes said. They took a photo outside the school instead, and the girls left the track and headed to a nearby ice cream shop to discuss what happened — and what to do next.
They had planned to go to a boys’ lacrosse game later that afternoon, unrelated to their protest, Baynes said. They went back to the school but did so quietly, they said — they didn’t want to be seen as trying to start trouble.
By the time they made it back, a couple of girls had put their shirts back on, but most kept them off because of the heat, Arango said. Before they made it to the bleachers, the girls said, they were stopped by three security guards.
Chapple met them and said they were not allowed to be there, according to Arango. A back-and-forth ensued: Chapple once more cited the dress code and threatened to call their parents; the girls asked why they had to leave when they saw other students in the crowd wearing clothing banned by the dress code, they said.
The athletic director took down their names and ID badges, and the girls said they left shortly afterward.
Before going home, they decided to post a petition on Change.org: “Stop Gender Biased Dress Codes: Allow the Girls Track Team to wear Sports Bras.”
The matter didn’t end there. On Friday, they learned they were all suspended from practices and competition for three days, on account of dress code violations and their conduct during the lacrosse game, they said. (After a meeting with the principal, that suspension was shortened to one day for most of the team, the girls said; one remains suspended indefinitely.)
On Saturday, letters admonishing the students’ behavior were hand-delivered to their homes. The letter, written by Chapple and shared with The Washington Post, said the girls were being suspended for “inappropriate and disrespectful behavior.”
Chapple said the girls were “insubordinate” by refusing to comply with her order that all students wear shirts during practice. Further, they used “inappropriate and disrespectful language” when asked to leave and “caused a disturbance at a lacrosse game.”
“The students were yelling, being belligerent, using vulgar language and were disrespectful towards me. I offered to speak with them separately in a calm manner,” Chapple wrote.
Based on their conduct, Chapple continued, she believed the girls posed “a continuing danger to persons or property or an ongoing threat of disruption to the academic and athletic process.”
Kayla Huba, an 18-year-old senior on the track team, said the letters were “a bunch of lies mixed together.”
If she was such a danger, she asked, why had her suspension been shortened to a day?
A follow-up meeting on Monday further frustrated the team and their parents, who say they were not allowed to attend.
At the meeting, their behavior at the lacrosse game was cited as the reason for the suspensions, not their clothing — a departure from what they were told last week, the girls said.
They were also invited to help participate in a committee to review the student code of conduct for next year.
“If we’re dangerous, why do they want us to participate in a committee?” Arango said.
It didn’t add up, Huba said. From the moment they entered the match, they were “treated like a threat,” she said.
Rosario Balarin, Arango’s mother, thinks the school could have handled the situation “without belittling their female athletes.” The suspension letters, she said, “reinforce the idea that there’s something inherently wrong with demanding better for yourself as a woman.”
She’s still unclear on what the exact offense was and frustrated to be cut out of Monday’s meeting. As Balarin sees it, the school is “creating a situation where they can continue to present these girls as disrespectful and threatening without other adults there to bear witness or help guide” them.
Baynes believes they were ultimately punished for taking a stand. And that’s turned her off from the sport that used to be her respite: “I’m unmotivated to run for a system or school that is against me,” she said.