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News/Politics, The Liberal Complaint

Where is the Line Between School Authority and Student Rights?

I find myself torn.  I have always been an advocate for our schools.  I believe they are underfunded.  I believe teachers are underpaid.  I believe many parents don’t do nearly enough to support their schools and many expect the school to raise their child.  On the other hand, I have seen a disturbing trend of school administrators overstepping their bounds.

Zero Tolerance Policies Gone Bad

One way that administrators have overstepped is in the implementation of zero tolerance policies.  They have instituted these policies and are imposing discipline on children unnecessarily.  My article from December, Zero Tolerance for School Administrators discusses some of the issues with these policies.  Since that article was published, the situation has gotten worse.  There have been numerous instances in the last couple of months where children suffered ridiculous punishments.

Neither of these examples show people using reason in their decision-making.  They seem to be examples of power-hungry administrators going too far.  Unfortunately, the problem isn’t limited to stupid decision-making surrounding toys and fingers.  School administrators have begun limiting how students can look.

Hair Color and Style

Recently, a student at Hurricane Middle School in Utah was barred from class because school officials believed her hair was an unnatural color.  The school’s policy states:

Hair, including beards, mustaches and sideburns, should be groomed so that it is neat and clean. Extreme hairstyles are prohibited. Hair color should be within the spectrum of color that hair grows naturally.

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Rylee MacKay

The girl, Rylee MacKay, had been having her hair dyed the same shade of red every six weeks since September.  According to the girl’s mother, she and the hair stylist that did the work both worked to find a color that was within the natural spectrum of hair color and fit Rylee’s desire for expression.  After worrying the parents who could not leave work to get their daughter, the school agreed to let Rylee attend class through the end of the week if she stayed in a room off of the main office, away from the other students.  According to reports, the school requested that Rylee dye her hair back to its original brown color; however, Rylee has refused because she feels that she looks better with red hair.

In a similar incident another middle school student from Florida, Michael Jestes, was suspended from school for dying his hair pink in support of breast cancer awareness.  Jestes dyed his hair, along with the rest of his family, in an effort to remember his grandmother who had died from breast cancer and two aunts who were battling the disease at the time.  The principle of the school demanded that his hair be dyed black, and the family agreed to cover the pink hair.  Later, the same principle told the Jestes family that he could see the pink coming through as purple highlights in the student’s hair and threatened to suspend him again.

Power Corrupts if Rights aren’t Protected

studentRightsHandbookCover

Look for the ACLU Student Rights Handbook for your state at http://www.aclu.org

The administrators in these instances are nothing but power-hungry, pathetic excuses for educators.  They feel that they have power over these children, and by extension, their families.  Any reasonable person would not enforce zero tolerance policies about weapons on students talking about bubble blowing guns and pretend finger guns.  It’s ridiculous.  These people should feel ashamed for their inability to separate reality from play time.  The residents of these areas should demand that these administrators be terminated and replaced as soon as possible.  I would not want anyone who can’t distinguish between a student playing with a pretend finger gun and reality teaching my children.  I definitely wouldn’t want someone who considers a Hello Kitty bubble blower a terrorist threat teaching them.

The policies that schools have implemented regarding hair color are blatantly unconstitutional.  While the Supreme Court has never ruled on a case specifically regarding rules about hair style and color, the foundation for the right of students in this area exists.  In 1965, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines that protected student’s right to free speech in schools.  That case was about students wearing armbands to protest the Vietnam War, but it created a foundation that supports students’ freedoms.  In an article discussing this issue Matt Hopkins, an attorney with Lester, Loving & Davies P.C., stated,

The Tinker case provides the basic rule. Schools only may limit students’ free speech when the speech materially and substantially interferes with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school, or when the speech interferes with the protected rights of others.

In fact, the right of students to choose their hair style was supported by the First Circuit Court of Appeals in the 1970 case Richards v. Thurston.  In this case, the court ruled in favor of a 17-year-old who had violated his school’s rule on “unusually long hair” on men.  Unfortunately, the other circuit courts have been inconsistent with this ruling.  Some have ruled similarly, while others have ruled against this protection.

At some point, the Supreme Court will need to rule on this issue.  Where does the authority of the school end?  Can they really justify imposing specific hair colors on students, claiming that certain colors are a distraction?  Do our children have the freedom to express themselves as they see fit with hair color and style?  How do we teach our children that they live in a country that believes in freedom of speech and expression when we deny them that very freedom?  For my part, I have two daughters.  If anyone tries to stifle their freedom of expression through a ridiculous rule like this, I would be happy to be the person who escalates this to the level of the Supreme Court.  Our children need to know that it isn’t acceptable to silence or hide those who see the world differently.  They need to know that, just because a person is in a position of authority, it doesn’t give that person the right to deny them their rights.  That simply isn’t what we do in the United States of America.

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