As students head back to school in droves, some are finding that staying within the boundaries of school rules for appearance is tougher than they thought. Lauren, a thirteen-year-old girl, was one such student who got a new “do” that was shaved on one side and dyed in a leopard-print pattern.
However, Lauren’s family and friends were soon left distressed when Lauren was sent home from school for violating school rules. Some are going as far as to say that this incident is a breach of the girl’s human rights.
Lauren’s school, which requires uniforms to be worn by its students, claims that its dress code policy is clear. In addition to making all of its students aware of each part of the policy, the school also provides copies for students to upload on its website.
In a statement, the school reported, “The policy clearly states that extreme haircuts, including hair color, are not allowed. A pupil arrived at school with a ‘leopard skin hair color’ style. I took the decision to send the pupil home in order to remedy this breach of the school’s uniform policy.”
The mother of the student claims that she supports school uniforms, but that controlling a students’ hair is going too far. “I have explained to the school that I can understand its uniform policy and I totally agree with it but you cannot tell anyone how their hair should be styled. They are discriminating against her because of how she looks. She has the right to express herself in whatever way she wants as long as she is in school uniform.”
Lauren’s supporters say that their biggest concern is that the education of student’s is being negatively impacted and that suspending the student for her hair is denying her the right to learn. They further assert that this amounts to an actual injury of the child.
One need only read through recent media reports, to see that this debate is not new. Late last year, a five-year-old named Jalyn went to school with a haircut that was short on the sides and longer on the top. The cut was characterized as a “Faux Hawk”. His school claimed that this haircut was a distraction to fellow students and he was sent home.
Jalyn’s family quickly secured representation by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. Not long after, the civil advocacy group filed a complaint alleging racial discrimination in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act with the U.S. Department of Education.
The language in Jalyn’s school policy is as follows: “All hairstyles must be appropriate for a Catholic grade school: extreme hairstyles, hair dye, highlights or extensions are not allowed (this includes feathers, foils, tinsel, “bling strands”, hi-lites, faux hawks, tails, and spiking … ).”
Jalyn’s mother contends that her black son is being singled out for harsher treatment from the school because of his race. She pointed out that other students had similar haircuts, but were allowed to keep them without interference from the school. Further, Jalyn’s claim is that this is just one more incident in a pattern of racially discriminating treatment aimed at the young student.
The lawsuit demands that the school “conduct cultural sensitivity training for the staff and administration, create a stronger anti-discrimination policy, and develop more culturally inclusive school discipline policies”.
Legal experts caution students who would consider this form of expression a constitutional right. There are limited cases where discrimination may be at play, particularly if there is a pattern of certain races being singled out while others are not. However, in most instances when a family chooses a private school with strict rules, then they need to work within those boundaries and follow the rules.
According to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, “no person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefit of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
So what does this mean for students wanting to express themselves? Unfortunately, the bar is pretty high to prove discrimination in these types of cases. Typically one case of one student being sent home for a hairstyle will not show a pattern of discrimination. Additionally, if a school has a pattern of sending all students home for the same infractions, this will typically not rise to the level of discrimination.
Assuming that actual legal discrimination does not come into play, what can your student do? There is always the immediate temptation to rebel. However, administrators say that disregarding rules because students do not agree with them is not the best way to bring about change. Instead, students should leverage their frustration to create change.
Yes, hairstyle rules may be ridiculous, but if they are a current school rule, students must respect them. If students want change, they should try and respectfully change rules by sitting down to conversations with administrators, starting a petition or gathering letters of support from students, parents, and teachers. This is the only way to help bring about positive and lasting change.
Some parties would argue that both student and any others that are being directed in such a manner with respect to something like their hair or clothes styles have been injured. Regardless of the potential civil rights actions, both parties claim that their children have been injured because they are unable to take advantage of the education they have a right to For this reason, both parties are considering lawsuits against the school districts in question in order to make up for the losses and emotional and psychological injuries to their child.
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