The Wyoming Area School Board has enacted a new dress code because they said the old one was vague, and this new one has concrete rules. How concrete is the word “decency?” At the June 28 meeting, the school board said that the uniform committee received guidance from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, the PSBA.
Please note that “hair” is not covered in the new code, and I’m sure it’s because the PSBA is aware that hair is a protected right in Pennsylvania, since 1972: Stull v. School Board of Western Beaver Jr-Sr High School, 459 F. 2d 339 (3r Cir, 1972). Pennsylvania school board regulations regulating the length or style of students’ hair are unconstitutional and unenforceable, except under the following three narrow factual circumstances: 1. If the length or style of hair causes an actual disruption of the educational process; 2. If the length or style of hair constitutes a health hazard; 3. If the length or style of hair constitutes a safety hazard, e.g., in shop classes.
As presented in leagle.com (search phrase “hair regulation for school teachers”), the court’s holding in Stull was cited by Pennsylvania Attorney General Packel in 1974, when informing the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education that “governance of the length and style of one’s hair is implicit in the liberty assurance of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment… is as applicable for teachers as it is for students (66 Pa. D. & C. 2d 2).” Congratulations, adult educators. The court case that protects student hair from administrative interference was used to allow teachers to wear mustaches and beards.
The Attorney General did not stop there. He cited Ramsey V. Hopkins, 320 F.Supp. 477 (N.D. Ala., 1970) a case involving prohibition of teacher mustaches, and wrote, “This is indeed a gross example of a rule based upon personal taste of an administrative official which is not a permissible base upon which to build rules for the organization of a public institution. See Zachry V. Brown, 299 F.Supp. 1360 (N.D. Ala. 1967). There must be some showing of justification for the rule related to the legitimate purposes of the institution.” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to infer that personal taste, e.g “decent,” is not permissible.
The school board doesn’t like yoga pants and hoodies, and say that it’s too difficult to police and enforce a ban on them. So instead, it has required only certain kinds of clothing and will resort to suspension of students to make its point. The board has always had suspension as a disciplinary tool, but won’t use it because it’s inflammatory to families. Now board members have created a $100,000 position for someone who will make sure that shorts go to the knee, and to use the hammer when they don’t. Seriously?
The school board enacted this new dress code soon after the 240th anniversary of the ultimate and much-admired act of American civil disobedience, July 4. Now, the students are frustrated with school board members who don’t listen. So, the students can make them see. They can wear black armbands to protest the code (Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969). They can get creative with their hair (Stull v. school, 1972). They can enroll in cyber school. They can ALL wear the wrong kinds of clothes on days that are important to the school board, and get suspended en masse. What is more American than civil disobedience?
Free public school education from age 8 to 16 is a protected right under the Pennsylvania Constitution. Just because Act 46 of 1998 said that school districts “may” impose limitations of dress and “may” require pupils to wear standard dress or uniforms doesn’t mean it is constitutional. If you insist on special clothes, then provide them. The minute you pull a student out of class because they didn’t purchase and wear the prescribed clothes, you have violated their constitutionally protected right to an education. How disruptive to the educational process is that?
Rhonda Lambert is a resident of Harding. Reach the Sunday Dispatch newsroom at 570-655-1418 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.