Friday, January 11, 2008

Another Hair-Raising Tale from a School

Kerens, Texas was probably, until now, best known for being the original home of the giant Santa Claus that was moved to Dallas and made over into Big Tex of Texas State Fair fame. But now the small East Texas town is making national news, thanks to a flap over boys' hair length at the local high school.

It started before winter break, when four students were told they would have to cut their hair before returning from break. None did so, and upon their return, they were suspended for three days:
Matthew Lopez-Widish said that after he and three other long-haired friends entered school Tuesday morning, the principal and assistant principal were waiting and called the students into their office.

The students were handed suspension papers, and Matthew said principal David Tyson told them, "We warned you, and you knew this was going to happen."

[...]The 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.
But it seemed like Matthew was taking fairly extraordinary measures to ensure that he met with the dress code while at school:
To meet the dress code standards, Matthew's mom braids his hair and then tucks the braids to shorten them and keep them off his collar. He slicks back his hair on the top to keep it out of his face and from covering his ears. After the five-minute process is over, it's hard to tell that his hair is nearly 2 feet long, Matthew said.
Given the choice of alternative school, Matthew--a straight-A senior--decided to transfer to another school that will even allow him to wear his hair down.

And yes, we've all heard stories like this before, with both sides of the argument making some good points. But I was very surprised to see DMN columnist Jacquielynn Floyd pretty much came out in favor of Matthew's position in a column yesterday:
It's a shame that Matthew Lopez-Widish had to change schools over something as comically anachronistic as the length of his hair.

It's absurd that we're still having this silly argument nearly half a century after the Fab Four, with their quaint mop-tops, wowed a generation of awestruck teenagers and scandalized their parents.

You can add my vote to the many who scoff that American schools should be a lot more concerned about the contents of the student noodle than the amount of amount of hair on its exterior.
I certainly agree with that; click the "Dress Codes" tab at the bottom of this post to read my previous writings on the subject. But something in Floyd's column caught my attention:
Matthew was told just before Christmas break that the compromise that the school had adopted for longer-haired boys -- bind or braid it up -- wasn't working out because some kids (not him) still weren't complying. All boys would have to cut their hair short. No exceptions.

I'm surprised and perhaps slightly amused that there are still school districts that mandate boys' hair may not touch their collars. I guess they're also still running around with rulers to measure miniskirts and making the girls wear bloomers under their gym uniforms.
So it wasn't that he was hiding his hair from anyone by going through the braiding process; he was simply obeying what seems to be a perfectly good compromise that was suddenly pulled out from under him. Why? Because other people were taking advantage of it.

This is why it's a good thing that I'm not a regular classroom teacher; I recoil at the slightest notion of punishing entire groups for the misdeeds of the few. Those few should be punished, period. Otherwise, what kind of lesson does it teach the students who aren't doing anything wrong? That authority figures are unreasonable and not to be trusted, and, in a nutshell, that "school sucks." Great lesson, guys...

Floyd continues:
This story is widely viewed as a culture clash between two ideological forces: In Matthew, some see a spoiled, arrogant, it's-all-about-me Gen Y teenager who thinks the rules don't apply to him. Conversely, some saw in the Kerens High principal a petty authoritarian nit-picker more interested in strict student conformity than in academic accomplishment.

[...]I guess it boils down to which you consider more important: The right in a free society to what we nebulously call "self-expression," or our mutual obligation to respect the rule of law, even in its most arcane manifestations.

Maintaining both freedom and the rule of law is, inevitably, a messy, kinetic business.
How true.

Floyd also notes that if the citizens of Kerens decide that they don't like this policy, and the school board members aren't responsive to their request, they can always depose those board members in the next election. But that takes a long time--since most boards have staggered terms of office--and, in the meantime, there are still administrators who seem to value their own power and control more than a student getting a good education. Floyd concedes that point:
No reason, of course, to suppose that ruling won't be overturned at some point. This issue comes up a lot, in the guise of provocative T-shirts, pierced flesh, holey jeans, unorthodox hair and various other forms of student "self-expression." If a sweeping change is handed down, though, it'll take a while, and Matthew Lopez-Widish may be as bald as a grapefruit by then.
This sort of reminds me of the recent flap over baggy pants here in Dallas. As I noted at the time, if a City Council member has that much time to spend on such a minor issue, that must mean that everything else in the city is going swimmingly--no crime, no potholes, etc. LIkewise, if this principal (who, for what it's worth, was described in one of the earlier stories as having "close-cropped" hair himself) is able to put this much energy into such an arcane issue, perhaps the man has a bit too much time on his hands. And perhaps some of that time could be filled with something useful, such as teaching a class. Just a thought.

I really do see the valid points on both sides of the issue, but I still have to fall on the side of students getting an education (and teachers teaching) without all the administrative claptrap getting in the way all the time. Just let teachers teach; just let students learn.

Feel free to support or disagree with me in the comments, of course.

Outrageous punishment or courageous mom? You decide: A Des Moines mother found booze in her 19-year-old son's car, which ran afoul of a previous rule she'd laid down. So she sold the car through the local paper. (The son cried foul, claiming that the alcohol belonged to a passenger.)

Father, it's confession time....for you: A man claiming to be a Catholic priest was arrested at the Amsterdam airport for hiding nearly 8 pounds of cocaine under his robes.

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