Smyrna Board of Education debates definition of ‘distracting hair’ in dress code

    The Smyrna Board of Education discussed what to do about potentially “distracting hair” – at great length – August 20.
    The debate at the board meeting at Smyrna Elementary was about the following proposed revision to the Smyrna School District dress code: “Hair must be of a natural color only and must not be a distraction to the educational process, as determined by School Administration.”
    Board Member Lynne Newlin said the wording was too ambiguous.
    “Suppose I have hair of a natural color, but it’s still a distraction?” she said. “The way it’s worded makes it sound like the color is the main issue.”
    Superintendent Debbie Wicks said the hairstyle, not just the color, is included in what “distraction” means in the dress code, for example a “Mohawk” cut or hair in front of the eyes.
    “If the principal determines it’s a distraction, then it wouldn’t be allowed,” said Wicks.
    Newlin said the wording is still too ambiguous: “What if someone switches from a brunette to a blonde? Is that allowed?”
    Board Member Chris Malec said she was concerned that the specifics about hair aren’t spelled out in the dress code, but left to each building’s principal to decide.
    “It needs to be uniform,” she said. “What if one principal says a five-inch Mohawk is a distraction, but another decides a three-inch Mohawk is a distraction?”
    The dress code was formed by a committee of community members along with administrators from each school.
    Board Member Ron Eby asked, “Is this enough to stand up to challenges? Can a principal say, ‘If you go to my school, you do as I say'?”
    Wicks pointed out in the dress code pamphlet, a section details a 1995 law signed by then Governor Tom Carper that allows school districts to enforce dress codes.
    Newlin asked, “What if you have a top academic student, but he or she has big hair?”   
    “It’s not the hair so much as the personality,” said Malec. “A person’s hair might be a distraction for a minute, but then everyone gets back on track. There are great kids who have unusual hairstyles. This is far too subjective. I think we’re taking too much away from kids’ ability to express themselves. It’s not the hairstyle; it’s the student’s behavior that’s distracting.”
    Smyrna Elementary Principal David Morrison said the problems usually occur because one student says something about another student’s hair, or tries to touch the student’s hair, and an argument, pushing and shoving, or maybe even a fight ensues.
    “We also have concerns with a student whose hair covers his face,” said Morrison.
    Sometimes teachers can’t tell if the student is paying attention or even awake because the teachers can’t see the student’s eyes, he said. A teacher could ask the student to brush the hair to one side, but if the student refuses, again an argument or disciplinary problem ensues. That’s why a principal has to be able to make the call as to what makes a hairstyle distracting, he said.
    “A student’s record shouldn’t be taken into consideration,” said Morrison. “If a student with straight A’s comes into the school in April with hair that’s distracting, the policy should be enforced.”
    Board Member Ginger Barkley said, “I think ‘distraction’ is the best word to use after hearing the adminstrators’ opinions on this.”
    Board President Jeff Clark said, “It doesn’t trouble me that we’re giving administrators discretion. I’m inclined to vote for this.”
    Assistant Superintendent Buddy Lloyd said the policy will never end the questions: “Parents will still debate you. They’ll say, ‘I don’t think it’s a distraction,’ but for administrators trying to fight the fight every day, this gives them more authority.”
    Newlin said, “The wording focuses on ‘color,’ not ‘cut’ or ‘style.’ It doesn’t fit, if that’s what you’re after.”
    “The code is supposed to be the same across the board,” said Malec. “Now (this section) is at the discretion of the administrators and could be different at each school.”
    Curriculum Supervisor Sandy Shalk said the administrators confer with each other on topics like this to avoid those situations, and to make the rules consistent.
    Eby said, “If this is going to stand up to scrutiny…and I’m kind of convinced by the Governor Carper statement that we seem to have the authority to do this, I can accept the building administrators have tried to work together to be uniform. If we have problems, we’ll come back and address them.”
    Newlin said, “I think it should say, ‘Hair must be of natural color only. Haircuts must not be a distraction as determined by the building administrator.’”
    Despite the objections of Newlin and Malec, the first reading of the revised dress code policy passed 3-2. The proposed revision will be brought up again at the next Board of Education meeting for the final reading, which, if approved, will set the policy.

No debate on flipflops
    Another proposed change in the dress code – that didn’t generate as much discussion as hair – was about flipflops, the footwear usually made of a plastic or rubber sole with just a strap between the first and second toes. Previously not permitted, flipflops would be allowed under the proposed revisions.
    Checking kids’ feet to determine if something was a sandal or a flipflop wasn’t a priority of the administrators, said Wicks; however, bare feet are still not permitted.

Concern about summer testing results
    Curriculum Supervisor Sandy Shalk said summer school success rates on the Delaware Student Testing Program were an improvement from last year.
    However, Board Member Newlin was concerned that 45 of the 65 eighth graders who retook the math test still only scored a 1, the lowest score on a scale of 1 to 5 on the DSTP.
    Superintendent Wicks said those students will be placed in a special program where they will spend twice as much time on math this school year.

School choice requests
    The Board approved seven school choice requests to attend district schools from students who live outside the district, including one “hardship exception” approved for one year only.
    Eleven school choice requests were approved for students who live in the district but who want to attend a different elementary school than the zone in which they live, mostly because of daycare issues, said Assistant Superintendent Lloyd.