Of slow days and long hair

ADMINISTRATORS in the Fort Bend, Texas, Independent School District must have been having a slow day. According to a recent report published in a Houston newspaper, administrators at the Mission Bend Elementary School suspended a seven-year-old first-grader because the length of his hair violates school policy. The boy's hair, it seems, falls neatly below his shoulders in the back.

Back in the 1960s, long hair was often a symbolic political statement, a nonviolent revolt against stifling middle-class norms, a rejection of complacency and conformity.

Many paranoid school officials feared that their students' long hair might actually signal a desire to do something violent, perhaps to destroy the hallowed halls of learning. To prevent this revolution, they often adopted strict codes banning long hair.

By the 1970s, much of this kind of nonsense had passed from the scene. By the '80s, hair length is, more than anything else, a social statement, and would usually remain so unless school officials insisted on making it something else.

Perhaps Mission Bend Elementary officials still believe that short hair makes model citizens and proper young gentlemen who will respect and obey society's laws and norms.

Actually, enforcement of stupid rules undermines respect for legitimate laws. Besides, an Ollie North haircut does not a law-abiding citizen make.

The British philosopher John Stuart Mill didn't write much directly about hair length, but his work ``On Liberty'' contains a few thoughts Fort Bend district officials might profit from pondering:

``The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.

``The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

``It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself.''

If this first-grader's long hair presents a real health or safety hazard to his fellow students, then school administrators have a legitimate justification for ordering him to cut it. If, however, only their subjective aesthetic sensitivities are threatened, they should sheath their shears and mind their own business.

But trivial issues are so much easier to confront than real problems. Their consideration requires very little intelligence, thought, or effort.

In fact, obsession with the trivial seems to exist in direct proportion to the level of unwillingness to confront legitimate issues.

What are some of the ``real'' questions Fort Bend officials might ask themselves?

How high do their students score on the Texas Educational Assessment of Minimum Skills, the SAT, and the ACT?

Are the district's teachers the best available, and are they paid what they are worth?

Does the district offer a comprehensive program of AIDS, drug abuse, and alcohol education and counseling?

How culturally literate are Fort Bend students, and what steps can be taken to improve their cultural literacy?

What programs are in place for students with special needs? How well does the district serve potential dropouts, gifted and talented students, and the developmentally impaired?

Perhaps the district excels in all of these areas. If not, however, worrying about a little kid's hair length is not only patently trivial, but also distracting.

There is one other problem with triviality: It is contagious, hence this essay. Fort Bend school administrators should stop it before it contaminates anyone else.

Joe Patrick Bean, an assistant professor of history at Concordia Lutheran College, Austin, Texas, has suspension-length hair.

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