Does freedom of expression include haircuts?
Garfield High School in Ohio has a Code of Conduct that prohibits extreme and distracting hairstyles and haircuts. In November, 2009 , eighth grader Dustin Reader found out just exactly what that means. In a nod to the Cincinnati Bengals 6-2 record this season, Dustin had his hair trimmed to resemble the Bengal’s helmet. Stripes and a capital “B” were shaved into the back of his head. He then had his hair colored for Sunday’s game, but washed the color out before school the next day.
As soon as Dustin appeared at school on Monday, he was taken to the principal’s office and given in-school suspension until his hair grows out or he changes the style. Dustin had done similar things to his hair in the past without getting into trouble. And his barber had cut many boys’ hair with sayings and artwork with no complaints from parents or the school.
Dustin’s parents reportedly support his design with his father stating that “this is a way for him to express pride in the Bengal’s putting up a winning season – it’s not racist, not disrespectful, not gang related or anything like that. It’s only football.”
In looking at Dustin’s cut, do you find it offensive or possibly disruptive at school? Should there be limits on personal appearance at school? Where do you draw the line between what’s acceptable and what’s not? How about piercings or brandings?
Although presented with the issue in 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to hear a case challenging hair length at school. The Court declined to hear Olff v. East Side Union High School and Freeman v. Flake. Justice Douglas dissented, pointing out that eight federal courts had ruled on the issue, with four in favor of public school control and four against it. He wrote that “I can conceive of no more compelling reason to exercise our discretionary jurisdiction than a conflict of such magnitude” but still no word from the Court on this. The Justice further commented that “Hair style is highly personal, . . . One’s hair style is, like one’s taste for food, or one’s liking for certain kinds of music, art, reading, recreation, is certainly fundamental in our constitutional scheme designed to keep government off the backs of people.”
Another case of questionable discipline at school regards 12-year-old Pat Gonzalez of Woodlake Middle School in Taxas. In support of his favorite player on the San Antonio Spurs basketball team, he got a haircut with the image of Matt Bonner shaved into the back of his head in May, 2012. The school considered it a distraction and gave him a one-day in-school suspension. The suspension would end if he got rid of the image. Pat agreed and shaved his head so he could return to his regular classes. Once the Spurs got wind of this incident, Pat was treated to a play-off game with his family. He also met Bonner and was given an autographed jersey and shoes. There was no evidence of any disruption or distraction at school. In the future, maybe moving the student to the back of the class to avoid any classroom distraction should be considered.
Find out more about student expression at school.