Tangled up in blue: new strands in hair wars
It's not often that good grades land you in detention. But that, indirectly, is what happened this spring to 12-year-old Jesse Doyle of Norfolk, Va. When his mother dyed his hair a deep, purplish blue one Monday night as a reward for good grades, Jesse found himself the next morning not on the honor roll, but on a chair in the front office kept out of class for a 'do that Norview Middle School administrators said disrupted education.Skip to next paragraph
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The tangle brought the intervention of the ACLU, and landed Jesse on the Today Show and MSNBC. But his struggle is just the latest strand in an age-old battle over dress codes, in which T-shirts and baseball caps have become the fabric of constitutional furor. Hair sculpted into mohawks, crimped into frizz, infused with hues once reserved for blinking neon remains a timeless flashpoint, cutting across cultures, generations, ethnicity, and class.
The heyday of coiffure conflicts was the 1970s with schools railing at long hair, deemed inappropriate on boys. But experts say constraints on student styles have grown tighter over the last decade, as spates of school violence intensified the belief that attire begets attitude.
"We saw a leap in the number of problems related to appearance after Columbine," says Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, where a military culture of buzz cuts looms large. In the past three years, Mr. Willis has dealt with three coiffure conflicts: a notch of blue hair, a full head of pink hair, and Jesse Doyle.
"Appearance is a way to separate yourself from the adult society. It's always been a way to gain attention and to show independence," says Dr. James Feldmann, national director of Kidspeace, a not-for-profit children's center.
But for Jesse, blue hair was "just something I wanted to do." So on April 23 he came to school with his blond hair dyed to match his Little League whale mascot and Norview's school colors only to spend four frustrating days on a chair in the school office. Both Jesse and his mom, Kim McConnell, maintain that any "distraction" would have been minimal and brief had he ever gotten to class.
The ACLU wrote a letter declaring the detention unconstitutional, and Norview allowed Jesse back in class.
The school district declined to discuss the incident with the Monitor.
Legal fuss over hair is nothing new for teens. The 1972 federal case of Massie v. Henry set a handy precedent for Doyle and other rainbow-coiffed Southerners, denying a North Carolina high school the right to regulate a teenage boy's long hair. Also central is a 1969 Supreme Court decision, which found, famously, that students "do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate."
But for parents, constitutional rights pale in feuds as caustic as peroxide: In a recent Monitor/TIPP poll, 71 percent of adults said they wouldn't let a 12-year-old child dye his hair blue.
Ann Douglas of Peterboro, Ontario, knows that reluctance well. Her daughter Julie had yearned for blue hair since fourth grade, when she saw the look on Darcy of the band Smashing Pumpkins. Though she says she harbored no stereotypes on brightly hued hair, she knows other parents do. "One mother of a classmate said something about girls who dye their hair [having] loose morals," she says. "But I think that's ridiculous."