Thursday, January 10, 2008

Long Haired Students Are Punished by Suspension in Texas

Four male high school students from the Kerens (TX) Independent School District have been suspended simply for refusing to cut their hair. The appearance policy for male students at Kerens High says hair may not go past the collar, below the eyebrows or a half-inch over the ears. Ponytails can be no longer than a half-inch. A few days before Christmas break, the students were told that they must cut their hair or they'd face alternative school, be removed from extracurricular activities and perhaps jeopardize their graduation.

Say what? For one thing, the hair policy is inappropriate and out of place in a public school. It serves no practical purpose. Number one, it's not a military school, so there's no legitimate reason for uniformity of male hair style. Secondly, it's sexist, because the school has no limits whatsoever in how female students may wear their hair. Thirdly, the hair restrictions obviously do not stem from safety considerations, as female students would be likewise restricted if this were the case.

And to send a student to an alternative school for having long hair? Please. Alternative school is for repeated breaking of major school rules, for things like fighting, stealing, hardcore truancy, and the like, not for differences in opinion over fashion. And graduating from high school should be based solely on the grades the students make, not their fashion sense.

One student, Matthew Lopez-Widish has declined to cut his hair. "I told them that I'm not going to cut my hair," said Matthew, 18, whose hair, when uncurled, reaches the middle of his back. "It may seem kind of stubborn, but to me, it's part of who I am. I just want the school board to notice that just because I have long hair doesn't mean I'm going to quit learning or obstructing people from learning." His mother agrees. "It's just a kid with long hair," she said. "It doesn't seem like a punishment that he deserves."

Damned straight. He's an adult and he should have a right to wear his hair as he pleases. He's not being paid to go to school, so it's not the same as a job requirement.

Matthew had made an effort to comply with the hair standards: his mother would braid his hair and then tuck the braids to shorten them and keep them off his collar. He also slicked back his hair on the top to keep it out of his face and from covering his ears. He is also a straight A student who works 30 hours a week in addition to attending school and he also participates in a theater program.

For the time being, Matthew has decided to transfer to another school nine miles away from his present high school. At his new school, he will not be required to cut his hair, nor go through the rigmarole described above.

Why would this school be pushing the issue so strongly on what is, after all, a very minor and petty rule? The student handbook gives a hint to the underlying prejudice and mindset of this school district:

"The Kerens ISD dress code promotes the effective personal presentation skills which contribute significantly to successful living in adult society. The district's dress code is established to teach hygiene, instill discipline, prevent disruption, avoid safety hazards, and teach respect for authority."

That explains a lot to me. The prejudiced attitude that assumes that long hair is necessarily dirty hair if it's on a male head is summed up by the word "hygiene". "Successful living" betrays the assumption that if a man has long hair, he's necessarily a bum without a job. Again, the "safety hazard" thing doesn't fly, as it doesn't apply to all students. And the "respect for authority" thing says to me that the underlying motivating factor here isn't so much the hair itself as it is to break the will of the students to compel them to conform; to turn them into docile followers, rather than future leaders or thinking individuals. Well, as far as I'm concerned, respect is earned, and it's a reciprocal thing. The students were not respected by not being allowed the privacy of determining something so personal as their own hair styles for no good, practical reason.

It boggles my mind that such a thing could still be an issue in the 21st century. I'd thought that this was something settled forty years ago. Indeed, when I was in high school, I wore my hair long and the school never had a problem with it. I'd have to put it up if I were participating in a shop class, but that was a safety rule that made sense, and I was allowed to have it down when safety wasn't an issue. I don't understand why this school can't follow the same common-sense policy my high school did over thirty years ago. And you would think that schools would have serious disciplinary problems to deal with to have even a moment's time to waste on this nonsense.


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