Herhold: A silly call on a 5-year-old’s haircut

Original article appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.

by scott herhold

Until I was nearly 13, my father cut my hair with an electric clipper that I saw as an implement of torture. He chose a style he called a “heinie,” which left me bald except for a quarter-inch fringe in front.

Irked by my lack of hair, I begged him one day for something less severe. In an attempt to even the cut, he shaved up each side of my head until I had a mohawk down the middle. I settled for one last heinie and vowed to go to a barber from then on.

I recite all this to establish my credentials for commenting on the haircut of 5-year-old Jalyn Broussard, who was sent home from a Belmont Catholic school on the grounds that his “modern fade” style would “unduly influence the student body.”

Let us not split hairs. This decision, made by the principal of Immaculate Heart of Mary School, Teri Grosey, was silly enough to make you weep. A picture of a smiling Jalyn last December shows him with conservative, tapered hair about a half-inch longer on top than on his closely sheared sides.

If Jalyn was “unduly influencing the student body,” then the last mohawk my father fashioned for me would have been enough to incite a mass scalping of my teachers.

Public school

Jalyn and his older brother Noah have since transferred to public school. But the spat over the haircut now has resulted in a complaint by the family with U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Arguing that white and Asian kids were allowed similar haircuts, Jalyn’s family says the school district discriminated against the African-American kindergartner. The family wants a refund of tuition for the two kids, about $16,000.

With lawyers involved, a fair amount of common sense has exited stage right. The legal argument centers on the details of civil rights law, the characteristics of white and African-American hair and the history of federal funding.

For what it’s worth, the school bans a “faux hawk” cut, which is essentially a mohawk with the spiking hair brushed or glued together in the middle. (Think soccer player David Beckham in his punk phase.)

According to the complaint, principal Grosey told Jalyn’s mother, Mariana Broussard, that her son’s haircut fell within that ban. Broussard has vigorously disagreed, pointing out that the “modern fade” is worn by other Immaculate Heart students. I’ve seen pictures: Broussard is right.

Tough job

Let us grant that a private school has a right to set its own standards. Let us grant, too, that being a principal is a tough job. Nonetheless, the heart of this issue is not the law, or the policy, or even the precise characteristics of hair.

The heart of the matter is common sense: There’s no way you can look at Jalyn’s haircut and decide that it was “unduly influencing the student body,” even given the vagueness of the prohibition. It’s short, stylish and far from extreme.

Maybe that’s why neither the school nor a spokesman for the Archdiocese of San Francisco responded when a reporter forwarded a photo of Jalyn’s December haircut. They know it was a bad call.