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Splitting Hairs in a Multi-Cultural School

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by WALTER BRASCH

Sasha Rivera is a 15-year-old sophomore at the Multi-Cultural Academy Charter School (MACS) in Philadelphia.

She's an honors student who never got into trouble at school, and volunteers at Motivos, a national magazine for Hispanic youth.

She also has blue bangs in her dark brown hair. For that reason, she isn't attending class.

Sasha and her principal, James Higgins, agree that Sasha came to school on Thursday, May 24, and had blue in her hair.

"In the hallway, he turned to me and said my hair color has to go," says Sasha. She says that Higgins told her that unnatural hair color is against school rules. "He said it was in the [student] handbook," she says.

MACS has a uniform policy, mandating specific clothes students must wear to class, what kind of jewelry and makeup, and even the only two colors of nail polish allowed. The only statement about hair is that it "should be neatly groomed." However, there is an ambiguous sentence, "Any appearance deemed by the school staff to be inappropriate in an educational setting is not allowed." That sentence deliberately leads to arbitrary, discretionary, and capricious interpretation that can pose legal challenges. "The whim of an administrator on one particular day does not constitute a rule or regulation," Jenée Chizick, Motivos publisher, wrote in Sasha's defense to the chief academic officer of the School District of Philadelphia.

Nevertheless, Higgins says that students can only have "natural hair color." He has no objections if students wish to dye their hair honey blonde or raven, since he considers those to be natural hair colors. Apparently, highlights and lowlights in female hair are also acceptable. By that logic, there can't be any objection to teens having white or gray hair, since they are "natural" colors. But, blue or green streaks, highlights, and bangs are not acceptable.

Higgins says he made the decision to exclude Sasha from classes the first day he noticed she had "unnatural" hair color.

However, Sasha has a different story. In her freshman year, she says she had streaks of orange, green, blue, and even blonde in her hair. "I was just experimenting," she says. For several months in her sophomore year, she had semi-permanent green streaks, but she says no one confronted her. About a week before she was told to get rid of the color or not attend class, she had the blue highlights on her bangs.

"Every day I come to school I go in the front door," says Sasha, "and he's always there to greet us and check our uniforms." Even if he missed all those days, he might have seen her, with green bangs on the cover of Motivos. Sasha had proudly brought the magazine to school to share with her teachers and guidance counselor. The photograph was taken March 22, so it had been two months that the principal and the teachers either didn't notice or care about the color of her hair. Her FaceBook picture shows her with the blue color. She doesn't know why her principal picked that one particular day to tell her she could not attend class because of her hair color.

Sasha was selected to participate as a Youth Media Ambassador to Colombia, with Motivos for 12 days in late June. She didn't have trouble getting a passport, complete with a picture of her and her blue-streaked hair. Apparently, her hair color posed no threat to the American image abroad.

Higgins claims he told Sasha she was not dismissed from school. "She can come back any time she has natural hair," he says. He says he even told her that teachers would give her packets of homework, and she could work in the school office and she could take finals there. But she couldn't attend class. Sasha and her father, Jaime, wonder why having blue color bangs is somehow acceptable if the student can sit in an office, with students, staff, and faculty walking in all the time, but not acceptable for class.

Jaime Rivera, who supports his daughter and vigorously protested the decision, says he told the administration, "You're denying her an education." He says he tries "to show my daughter what is right and what its wrong, and to stand up for herself."

Sasha says other students never complained or made fun of her, nor has her grades slipped because of her appearance. But, Higgins and a strict school policy places appearance as a primary condition in education.

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www.walterbrasch.com

Walter Brasch is an award-winning journalist and professor of journalism emeritus. His current books are Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution , America's Unpatriotic Acts: The Federal Government's Violation of Constitutional (more...)
 
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