ACLU Defends Student Suspended for Blue Hair

May 25, 1999 12:00 am

Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Tuesday, May 25, 1999

RICHMOND–The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia filed suit today in Richmond Federal District Court seeking reinstatement of a Surry County High School sophomore who was suspended on April 28 for coming to school with his hair dyed blue.

The ACLU is asking the court to order the Surry County School Board to allow the student to return to school immediately and to provide a means for him to make up work lost as a result of the suspension. The lawsuit also charged that school officials refused to give complete assignments to the student so that he could keep up with his school work from home.

Surry County High School student Kent McNew had been attending school since dying his hair blue last December. According to papers filed with the court, although there have been no incidences of disruption caused by Kent’ s hair, Surry County High School officials suspended Kent under a new policy banning unusual hair colors. The policy was apparently adopted by the Surry County School Board in reaction to Governor Jim Gilmore’s call for a crackdown on student expression in the wake of the tragic shootings last month at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

In a letter sent to the parents of Kent McNew on the same day as the suspension, Assistant Superintendent Alvin W. Wilson wrote: “The school administration has ruled that students who wear unusual or unique hair colors, such as blue or green, are to be removed from school until such time as their hair is a normal color…In view of the circumstances that have occurred recently, the governor expressed that unusual activities/appearances should not be ignored.”

“Schools should be safe places for everyone,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “The ACLU believes it is possible to make policies that effectively address concerns about school safety and still honor students’ constitutional rights.”

“The Surry County policy, which is completely unrelated to school safety and clearly infringes on students’ rights, ignores both of these important guiding principles,” he added.

In a letter faxed to Wilson last Thursday, the ACLU asked the school to reinstate Kent voluntarily in order to avoid a lawsuit. Wilson did not reply.

A hearing on the matter has been set for June 3, 1999.

“Irrational policies unrelated to school safety or educational objectives, such as banning unusual hair colors,” Willis said in the letter, ” create distrust of school officials at the very time we most need to have confidence their leadership.”

The ACLU is filing the lawsuit on behalf of Kent McNew and his mother Phyllis Smith. McNew and Smith are represented by ACLU cooperating attorney Victor M. Glasberg of Glasberg & Associates in Alexandria and Richard Ferris, Associate Director of the ACLU of Virginia.

Letter from the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri to School Superintendents

May 20, 1999

Mr. Alvin W. Wilson
Assistant Superintendent
Surry County Public Schools
Surry County High School
1675 Hollybush Road
Dendron, Virginia 23839

RE: Suspension of Kent McNew from Surry County High School

Dear Mr. Wilson:

I am writing to inform you that the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia is preparing to provide legal representation to Phyllis Smith and her son Kent McNew in the matter involving Kent’s suspension from school because of the color of his hair. Lawyers for the ACLU intend to file suit in federal district court early next week, unless you permit Kent to return to school within twenty-four hours of the receipt of this fax transmission, with an appropriate agreed-upon plan to address the class work missed by Kent as result of his suspension.

According to your letter of April 28, 1999, in which you inform Kent’s parents of his suspension “the school administration has ruled that students who wear unusual or unique hair colors, such as blue or green, are to be removed from school until such time as their hair is a normal color…In view of the circumstances that have occurred recently, the governor expressed that unusual activities/appearances should not be ignored.”

As you know, Kent and his mother attempted to strip the blue color from his hair, after which they met with you and sought Kent’s reinstatement. Apparently, because the hair was still not a normal color, you refused to allow Kent to return to school. This left them with no alternative but to seek legal assistance from the ACLU.

Please be aware that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has previously ruled in Massie v. Henry that public schools may not regulate the style of students’ hair. In that case, quoting from Richards v. Thurston, the Fourth Circuit writes:

We do not believe that mere unattractiveness in the eyes of some parents, teachers, or students, short of uncleanliness, can justify the [long hair] proscription. Nor, finally, does such compelled conformity to conventional standards or appearance seem a justifiable part of the educational process.

In the same case, the Court also writes:

Perhaps the length of one’s hair may be symbolic speech which under some circumstances is entitled to the protection of the First Amendment. But the record before us does not establish that the minor plaintiffs selected the length of their hair for any reasons other than personal preference. For that reason, we prefer in this case to treat their right to wear their hair as they wish as an aspect of the right to be secure in one’s person guaranteed by the due process clause.

The ACLU of Virginia believes that the U.S. Constitution protects Kent’s right to wear blue coloring in his hair. We further believe that in these difficult times following the tragic events at Columbine High School, school officials should set an example for students and parents by keeping cool heads and calmly implementing effective programs to guard the safety of students in Virginia’s schools. Irrational policies unrelated to school safety or educational objectives, such as banning unusual hair colors, create distrust of school officials at the very time we most need to have confidence their leadership.

I thank you for your attention. I hope you will take immediate action to remedy this situation.

Sincerely,

Kent Willis
Executive Director
ACLU of Virginia

Sign up to be the first to hear about how to take action.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release