Brookline, Mass. — In a school where the student handbook states ''The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees your right to choose the clothes you want to wear and the length of hair you prefer,'' it is hardly surprising that a ban on a type of headgear encountered some resistance.
The issue at Brookline High, a school known to reflect the liberal leanings of this city just west of Boston, was whether students should be allowed to wear stereo headsets in the library and hallways of the campus.
Today the lenient view prevails. ''Headsets are allowed in school, except in the library and in classes,'' notes school official Jennifer Huntington. According to this policy, students must take headsets off when requested to do so by a faculty member.
But the policy has done a number of flip-flops since last year, when Headmaster Robert McCarthy first proposed a tougher policy that banned the headsets - or ''Walkmans,'' as they are popularly called - from school buildings and the quadrangle.
Then, as now, he maintained the headsets distract from learning, which is the main purpose of school. ''They symbolize a retreat from contact with other humans, and they fly in the face of community,'' he adds.
Last year, the school's ''town meeting'' (composed of faculty, staff, and student representatives) endorsed the headmaster's sterner policy. In fact, the ban is contained in the current Brookline High School student handbook. But a town-meeting revote early this year struck down the tougher ban, letting the headsets back into school.
Dr. McCarthy says a revote was necessary because the voting formula used last year was ruled invalid. He says the headset question attracted little parental concern.
Even so, in Brookline and a number of other metropolitan schools, some teachers and administrators have argued that the headsets prevent students from hearing the teachers, thus blocking the learning process. And if students are permitted to bring the stereos into the classrooms and hallways, discipline could be undermined, they say. Concern has grown even though stereo-headset music is usually - but not always - quiet enough so that only the headset wearer can hear it.
In Canton, for example, the school committee unanimously voted last month to ban the headsets from all school premises, including classrooms, home rooms, and hallways.
Joseph Joyce, the principal of the 1,050-student high school, says he requested the ban because widespread use of the Walkman could become a future problem, even though it is not one now. He says it was necessary to prohibit headsets in hallways and other areas to prevent students from also carrying them into the classrooms.
But some towns and cities do not have detailed formal regulations. For example, at Newton's South High regulation of headsets is ''up to the teacher,'' explains PrincipEl Ernest Van Seasaholes. He adds, ''It is a rare teacher who would allow headset use in class.'' But in hallways, teachers would intervene only if headset use is annoying to other people, he explains.
Still, some Newton students complain the loosely defined regulations encourage disturbances and make studying difficult.
''A lot of them just sit in study hall shaking their heads with the beat. It makes it hard to concentrate,'' says one Newton High student.
Outside the schools, local and state traffic authorities in New England and elsewhere are tackling what they say is a safety threat posed by the headsets.
When a stereo is turned up loud enough, it can impair or block out a motorist's ability to hear other sounds, threatening the safety of pedestrians or motorists nearby, officials say.
Spokesmen for local and federal traffic-safety organizations say they do not have quantitative data on precisely how many traffic accidents are related to headset use. But the presumption of danger has been great enough for the National Committee for Uniform Traffic Ordinances to recommend that states adopt statutes barring motorists and bicyclists from wearingQtyxy - ZO earplugs in both ears.
According to Robert Boaz, assistant director of public affairs for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington, nine states, including Massachusetts, have followed the recommendation. Others are California , Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Washington. A significant, but untallied, number of towns and cities have adopted similar regulations, he adds.
The Massachusetts ban goes back to 1974, long before the use of stereo headsets became fashionable and widespread, notes Kathy Connolly of the Masschusetts Department of Motor Vehicles. ''There is a general consenus that people wearing headsets cannot hear outside founds such as car horns,'' she adds.
State law states that wearing a headset while driving is punishable by a $25 fine, according to Joseph Howley of the Massachusetts State Police. Statistics are not detailed enough to determine how often ticketing for this kind of violation occurs, he adds.