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.

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."

Still, "It took years to convince Mom to let me," says Julie, now 14. Years, and a humiliating "short and girly" haircut last November – a shearing that left her mom so sympathetic, she relented. Julie now colors her hair monthly – pink, red, orange, blue, and purple – with help from her dad and compliments from her 10th-grade boyfriend, Jeff. Her homeroom teacher takes photos of each new look.

The common caveat in school dress codes these days is a catchall prohibition on clothes and hair deemed "disruptive to education" – a standard leaving plenty of room for interpretation.

To Eric Carlson, principal of Gerisch Middle School in suburban Southgate, Mich., it's a line that 7th-grader Maria Alexander clearly crossed last October, when she came to school with the lower half of her blonde hair dyed "cartoon blue." Mr. Carlson suspended Maria until she could wash the dye out or cover her hair. Southgate parents supported the dress code, and two weeks later, Maria returned to school with her hair washed to a dull bluish tint.

Carlson staunchly defends his judgment that Maria's was "disruptive" hair. "When kids started to openly joke and laugh in the hall ... broke into the Smurf song for her ... and called her Marge Simpson ... that reached the threshold of disruption."

To such arguments, the ACLU's Willis responds, "You cannot allow hecklers to veto the First Amendment."

In the annals of teen fashion – full of tattoos, piercings, and spikes – a few dabs of dye may seem harmless. But to adults, "it symbolizes insubordination writ large," says Joanne Eicher, Regents professor in the department of design, housing, and apparel at the University of Minnesota at the Twin Cities. She recently received her niece's graduation picture – with a green and blue mohawk.

Before the long-haired flower children of the 1960s, she says, teens' stylistic experimentation usually came through clothes, as with thebeatniks' beret-and-turtleneck garb. Even pop-music stars tended to be conservatively coiffed.

But today, the hair controversy surpasses the stylistic, even broaching religious freedom. In September of 2000 in Louisiana's Lafayette Parish, a Rastafarian family new to the area sued the school district for preventing their eight children from enrolling: District policy outlawed long hair and head coverings, which are mandated in Rastafarianism. After five months, the school enrolled the children, but demanded their knit headwraps be in school colors, and reserved the right to search the kids' dreadlocks each day for weapons and contraband.

And in Ohio in 1997, a hair controversy led to a lawsuit for unlawful seizure over an incident in which a school principal chopped off sixth grader Morgan Woodson's popcorn braids.

"Would the founding fathers be allowed in school with powdered wigs?" asks David Frank, a Harvard University sociologist. "It's hard to believe that school administrators should not be mobilized around more education-centric issues."

But Carlson of Gerish Middle School insists the line between looks and lessons is unclear. "The state charges me with [being] 'in loco parentis,'" he says, "so if I'm everybody's daddy, I'm making a judgment call.... You don't have to shred the cocoon the minute they leave elementary school."

The controversy has only emboldened the blue-coiffed Jesse Doyle.

In honor of the last day of school this Friday, he plans to dye his hair in rainbow stripes. "It's like beating the system," he says. "I'll probably do it when I'm grown up, too."

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