Should schools police students' hairstyles?
- After watching a viral video of a New Jersey high school wrestler forced to get a haircut to compete, David McGuire, principal of Tindley Summit Academy in Indianapolis, reflected on his school's former policy of policing black male students' hairstyles with Chalkbeat.
- Since the early 2000s, the Indianapolis-based charter had stringent rules regarding male students' hair: Braids, twists, dreadlocks or styles longer than 3 inches were prohibited. The policy was designed, McGuire said, to prepare students for future careers by teaching them to look more professional.
- These hairstyles have since become more popular and more widely accepted, and McGuire's school rolled back its policy at the start of this school year. McGuire said he feels the incident at Buena Regional High School, while regrettable, helped spark a necessary dialogue about these types of rules and their racial and social implications.
School dress code law was first established in 1969 by the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District decision. The court ruled that “schools may limit student expression (such as enforcing dress codes) if there is a legitimate concern that such expression will be disruptive to the learning environment or violate the rights of others." But since then, U.S. courts — and citizens — have remained divided on how this applies to hairstyles. While some argue the First Amendment and the right to free expression allows students to wear their hair as they please, opponents say these policies fall within a school's right to exercise authority and discipline.
Andrew Johnson, the wrestler in the video, is far from the only student to be judged in an educational setting because of a hairstyle. In one prior incident, a 3rd-grade girl was pulled from class because she wore “afro puffs." In another, a Florida school's administrators told a 16-year-old black girl her natural hairstyle violated school policy and asked her to get her hair done. A Colorado girl was also barred from attending class because she shaved her head in an act of solidarity for a friend who had cancer. And the list goes on.
Uniform dress codes — which sometimes detail how students can wear their hair — are more popular than ever, but hairstyles can be much more personal, as they reflect a student’s ethnicity, culture and innate physical traits. In addition, these policing incidents tend to disproportionately affect students of color, and the wrestling video was met with a firestorm of protests against what's argued as a discriminatory and racially biased practice.
To ensure all students feel included and are treated equally, school leaders must practice cultural sensitivity regarding individual students' cultures and traits. By re-examining existing policies, as well as consulting a school attorney about any potential issues, administrators can get a better sense of whether a rule is crossing a line. It's also beneficial to involve students, parents and community members in discussing these types of policies and how they affect a given population.
These incidents can be used to foster cultural awareness in classrooms and promote more positive learning environments. Students should be learning in diverse cultural spaces, where physical, cultural and other characteristics aren't used to judge them, and they need to grasp skills including awareness, tolerance and acceptance to enter the post-graduation world. Teaching students to present themselves professionally is valuable, but it doesn't give schools the right to exercise unfair policing practices — especially as the professional world becomes more mindful of and sensitive to a variety of cultural practices.