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How I Handled...

Making Exceptions to
Our Student Dress Code


Our student dress code serves us well when it comes to handling students with too-short skirts or T-shirts with inappropriate text on them. Then a student showed up with a Mohawk haircut that was against code. Could we make an exception for a good reason?

The Problem:

Our school's dress/appearance code has evolved over the years. Today it includes statements of expectation related to clothing, hairstyle, tattoos, piercings, and more. We use it frequently as a fallback when making decisions about sending students home for not coming up to code. But then, one day, one of our male students showed up at school with a Mohawk haircut. That hairstyle was definitely in violation of our code, but his reasons were unique. The haircut added a touch of realism when the student took part in weekend American Revolution battle re-enactments. Could we make an exception to the code? The boy's father threatened a lawsuit if we didn't.

The Solution:

At first appearance, the solution seemed a simple one to me. I would call the student into my office, contact the parents to remind them of the school's dress/hair code, and -- voila! -- the problem would be solved.

But not so fast there, principal!

The fact that the father threatened to sue if we pulled his kid from school put this situation in a little different light. Without the offending haircut, the father was quick to point out, the student would be denied the opportunity to perform in American Revolution historical re-creations on the weekend. It was clear that the father didn't plan on budging, so I simply told him that I would "check into it and get back to him."

Immediately, I called our school board attorney and faxed to him our dress/hair policy. He got right back to me. His take was that our dress/hair policy was not specific enough to deny the student from attending school.

As much as the intent of the policy was pretty clear to most people, I thought about the decision I faced. I knew that if I stuck to my guns, I would be doing so alone. On the other hand, I didn't want the other students to see the young man and start a new hairstyle trend. Would I have my own "revolution" on my hands if I made an exception to the code for this kid's "revolutionary" haircut?

I decided to return the father's call. I told him that I had thought through the situation. Since the son was involved in historical re-enactments, I decided he could continue to come to school with a Mohawk. If the hairstyle became disruptive in any way, however, I would need to re-evaluate the situation. For example, I told the father, I would need to re-evaluate if the boy was teased or if the hairstyle resulted in any kind of altercation. I also let students and parents who questioned the hairstyle know that the boy was involved in historical re-enactments; his choice of hairstyle was not a case of middle school expression gone awry.

The father agreed. He expressed his thanks for our consideration and understanding.

That was two weeks ago and, so far, no problem. The Mohawk seems to have become a non-issue.

The Reflection:

I decided, based on the student's legitimate reasons and a dress code that was not airtight, that the only real option I had was to try to negotiate. The goal was to negotiate a win-win solution. If I had stuck to my guns and the parents had taken their case to the school board, I probably would have lost my argument, and then I might not have any chance of having a meaningful dress/hair policy.

I am glad that I checked with our attorney. I have always believed that our central office is there to help us; when in doubt about anything -- school board policies, legal issues, financial facts -- I ask.

In the end, I think we came to the best solution possible. Everyone was pleased with the results. Now we will work at tightening the language of our dress/hair policy.

About the How I Handled... Team of Principal Problem Solvers
The How I Handled series is intended to be practical resource for all principals and principals-to-be. Each week, members of Education World's How I Handled team share how they solved actual problems relating to school leadership, parent involvement, professional development, and a host of other "principal" responsibilities. How I Handled team members are anonymous; in that way, they can share freely the range of issues/problems they are called on to solve each day.