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Jan. 23 was supposed to be a special day for high school senior Clara Mitchell.
The Parkview Arts/Science Magnet High School student was scheduled to present at her school’s science symposium in Little Rock, Arkansas, and she was understandably excited. Mitchell’s big day quickly turned sour, though, after a school official called her into the office for a dress code violation.
The honor student was sporting a plaid skirt she'd previously worn to school without incident, but it landed her in hot water with administrators this time around.
"A lady who works at the attendance office told me that my skirt was way too short, and asked me to turn around. She then called an assistant principal to escort me to his office. I offered to put my trench coat on to cover myself up, but they would not let me," Mitchell told TODAY Style.
The school's assistant principal then told Mitchell to call her parents and ask them to bring her a change of clothes.
"I tried to explain to them that I live half an hour away from the school and that my parents both work full-time jobs. I also explained that waiting for a change of clothes would run the risk of me missing my presentation time for the science symposium, and, therefore losing my chance to earn my seal for the science magnet area of my school," Mitchell said.
While waiting in the main office for her father to arrive, Mitchell texted one of her close friends, fellow Parkview senior Laura Orsi, who quickly offered her own father's services, asking him to bring her friend some clothes since her house is much closer to the school.
"When I received the text from Clara, I felt deeply concerned for my friend, knowing that she’s such a sweet person who already has so much going on in her life. She had science symposium that morning and is taking six AP classes. She ranks third in the class, and knowing the stress she was already going through that day really made the situation strike a chord with me," Orsi told TODAY.
After her class finished up, Orsi visited Mitchell in the main office to check on her friend.
"Laura came by the office to comfort me, and another assistant principal not only thought I was pretending to have a panic attack for pity, but also threatened to dress code Laura for her dress, but did not,'" Mitchell said.
Mitchell's father soon arrived, as did Orsi's father, who brought a change of clothes just in time for Mitchell's science symposium presentation.
After witnessing her friend's pain, Orsi was inspired to challenge unclear dress code standards at her school and other schools around the country.
"Clara actually thought she was in (trouble for the) dress code last week, but different administrators will get kids for different things, and have different ideas of what 'out of dress code' really means," Orsi said. "That’s the main thing that inspired me — wanting everyone to be dress coded equally and to set a good standard. I decided to act on her behalf simply because I care deeply for her and felt very disappointed in how the situation was handled that day."
The next day, Orsi decided to perform a little experiment and wore the exact same skirt that Mitchell had just worn to school. After several intentional trips to the school office and a casual run-in with one of the administrators that gave Mitchell a dress code violation, Orsi made it through the day unscathed.
"I wore the same skirt the next day originally to prove that minority girls are treated differently than white girls. I still stand by that. We live in a society that breeds deep, subtle, often unrealized racism, and I think that’s why she was coded. As this has grown, I’ve realized it’s a lot more about body type, though. I didn’t get in trouble for the skirt," Orsi said.
With her father's help, Orsi created the Pass The Skirt website along with an Instagram and Twitter page. The goal? To encourage students to document their school outfits using the hashtag #PassTheSkirt and share their dress code stories.
"I started the website because the Instagram blew up in a way I wasn’t expecting and I needed a way to reach more people and solidify what our goal, cause and purpose was. I also needed a place to provide resources about the issue of race and dress code. Our current website goals are to have it so people can have an 'account' for their school district where they can have their own survey, post stories and data specific to their schools, organize events for their schools, etc.," Orsi said.
The teen also hopes to have merchandise available soon and has partnered with Little Rock Central High’s Black Student Union, enlisting the group to write articles and serve as voices of the movement.
On designated "pass the skirt" days, Orsi also encourages students to let other classmates borrow their clothes, as she did with Mitchell, to see if they have a different experience with school officials than their friends might while wearing the same outfit.
As she explained on Instagram, "This is part of an experiment to see if LRSD unfairly dress codes girls and minority students."
So far, Orsi has been overwhelmed by the positive response to the Pass The Skirt movement, and is optimistic her school will make positive changes to their dress code moving forward. She's even been invited to Parkview's Principal's Round Table, where administrators and students discuss possible changes at the school, and her principal also wants her to serve on the committee that revises the handbook each year. This is all welcome progress in her mind.
"Culturally, we need to stop viewing girls as mere distractions, as inherently sexual, as things we need to hide. We aren’t — we are humans who, at this point in life, are just trying to figure out who we are, and we want to express that," she said.
As for Mitchell? Well, she's just grateful her friend has been so supportive and hopes her story serves as a lesson in empathy for school officials.
"I will do my part and understand that administrators are people too. People make mistakes, but this also means people are also able to learn. I love my school, and I hope this all goes in the right direction," she said. "I hope people who have the power to change the handbooks will understand that students' clothes should not hinder their education. I hope these people learn to enforce the code equally among all genders, body types and races. I hope Pass The Skirt wins."
TODAY Style reached out to Parkview Arts/Science Magnet High School for comment but has not heard back.