In New Jersey, a referee forced a high school wrestler to cut his dreadlocks before he could participate in a match. In Texas, a 4-year-old named Michael Scott had to cut his long hair before he could go to school. These cases are part of a national trend; students’ hair choices are increasingly criticized in schools around the nation.
Paige Baker is an 8th grade student. Like many middle school students, she is unsure if there are any specific hair-rules at her school.
“I don’t know of any haircut or hair color rules,” she said.
John Mallick, an 8th grade teacher, agrees.
“I have not seen any specific rules,” he said.
In the 2016 Kingsport City Schools Student Handbook, there is only mention of hair.
“No unnatural hair coloring, i.e., pink, orange, purple, etc., is permitted,” the handbook states.
The current handbook, however, does not specifically mention hair at all. Instead, it states that a distracting appearance is unacceptable, although it mostly focuses on clothes.
“If a student’s dress or appearance is such that it constitutes a threat to the health or safety of others, distracts the attention of other students or staff from their work, or otherwise violates this dress code, the principal or designee may require the student to change his appearance and/or be sent home according to the handbook,” it states.
Teachers generally feel that anything that distracts students from learning is a bad thing. Kristen Duncan is a 6th grade Language Arts teacher and assistant dance coach.
“Haircuts and color should not be distracting to learning,” she said. “Some styles that are outrageous can be distracting. If it is so over the top that other students stare and become off-task, it is too much. Also, if it causes a student to keep messing with their hair, it is distracting”.
Kyleigh Hardie, a 7th grade student, disagrees.
“No one really cares,” Hardie said.
According to Hardie, students’ hairstyles at Sevier Middle “are cool and unique”.
Baker feels that hairstyles really do not create much of a distraction at the school.
“If a person in front of you in class has tall hair, it could be distracting, but you just would ask to move and not let it become a problem,” she said.
Mallick has not seen any distracting hairstyles. Duncan agrees.
“[I’ve not seen a distracting] haircut, but I have had students who are consumed with touching or combing their hair,” she said.
Although hair policies seem relaxed at Sevier Middle, not all students are so lucky. Paragon Charter Academy in Michigan recently did not allow an 8-year-old girl named Marion Scott to take a yearbook photo because she had red hair extensions. The school’s student handbook only allows “conservative” hairstyles and states that shaved heads, Mohawks and mullets are not allowed. Even the hair color of students as to be “natural”.
“I think as long as her parents are okay with it, she should be allowed to have hair as she likes,” Baker said.
Duncan believes that the best policy for students is simply to follow the rules.
“If it does not violate school rules, she should be able to take the photo,” Duncan said. “If it is in violation of school rules, then she should have followed the rules.”
A four-year-old African American boy, Michael Trimble was told he had to cut his long hair off when he started primary school in Texas in August. Trimble’s grandmother and other community members are now challenging the school’s dress code.
“If the hair was not a distraction, the 4 year old should keep his long hair,” Mallik said
Duncan called the decision made in Texas “ridiculous”.
Hairstyles have also been getting in the way of sports. In December 2018, a New Jersey high school student had to cut off his dreadlocks before he could compete in a wrestling match. The referee who demanded the haircut was suspended for two years because the student’s civil rights were violated.
“They should not have cut his dreadlocks,” Mallick said. “There should be a way to cover his hair.”
Duncan can think of few reasons why such a haircut would be inappropriate.
“If it is a safety concern, or if it gives the athlete an advantage,” she said.
This focus on hair has happened mostly with African American students and even some adults at work. African Americans often are told that their hair needs to be “neat, clean conservative, and conventional”.
Narvie Harris Elementary School, for example, put up a poster earlier this school year focused on African American hairstyles. The poster showed braids, fro hawks, and twists as inappropriate hairstyles for African American students. This poster caused a major controversy in the community.
“That is ridiculous,” Duncan said. “All of those styles are appropriate and acceptable.”
“I think that is just wrong to do because that’s just a hair style,” she said. “I don’t see how that could be inappropriate.”
According to the Washington Post, some states have started passing laws to stop discrimination against African American hairstyles in the workplace and in public schools. These are called CROWN Acts, which stands for “Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair”. New York and California both have CROWN Acts on the books.
“I think the school can tell you restrictions on some things that could be important, but not about hair,” Baker said.
She does not believe these kind of incidents could happen at Sevier Middle.
“They let students have their hair as they want,” she said.
In the end, there is a fine line between helping students learn and unfairly restricting their rights.
“Schools have a right to set an expectation that ensures all students to have the opportunity to get an education free from distraction,” Duncan said. “However, I don’t feel that this should include the school’s opinion on styles.”