Colorado charter schools encounter dress code friction

Charlie McGrath

Hair that's been ruled as too short, too long or too blue has caused repercussions for Colorado public school students.

Education officials say they have the power of state law behind them in setting a Goldilocks ideal of "just right."

"You can prohibit apparel that's deemed disruptive to a safe, orderly classroom environment," said Ethan Hemming, executive director of the Colorado Charter School Institute, which oversees 28 charter schools statewide.

But some believe the boundaries of acceptable hairstyles in school dress codes are too arbitrary and subjective.

"There are so many kids with out-of-dress-code hair, but they don't enforce it across the board," said Marilee McGrath.

McGrath's son, Charlie, attends The Classical Academy in Academy School District 20. He was told March 17 to either cut his shoulder-length hair or not come back to class.

Charlie, who has been a student at the charter school for 12 years, grew his hair because seniors get certain privileges. Each year, students and administrators draw up a contract outlining the perks for the senior class.

Deviations to the normal dress code policy - which requires uniforms - might mean seniors can wear blue jeans instead of black jeans on Fridays or patterned instead of solid colored shirts.

This year's senior contract said there would be no gender restriction on hairstyle or length. The regular policy states that haircuts cannot be too conspicuous, extreme or odd in color or style, and boys' hair must be no longer than the bottom of the ears on the sides and no longer than the bottom of the collar in back.

McGrath said high school administrators abruptly revoked the hairstyle exception for seniors March 6 but did not properly communicate that to students.

Charlie was told he would have to cut his hair in front of the whole senior class, which made Charlie feel "singled out and embarrassed," according to an appeal the McGraths filed.

"It was never clear what the problem was," McGrath said. "They said they shouldn't have allowed it to begin with and they did not want to see a student like Charlie walk across the stage (at graduation); it's not their image."

Tisha Harris, spokeswoman for The Classical Academy, said while seniors negotiate a contract with administrators for certain privileges, "any of them can be taken away at any time," and students are aware of that.

For example, she said, if the senior lounge, a separate area where seniors can hang out, is messy and unclean, "we'll close it without notice."

Harris said she could not discuss the specific incident with McGrath because it pertains to an issue with an individual student.

The school board decided not to consider the McGrath family's appeal.

"They said because it was a uniform issue, they wouldn't hear the appeal," McGrath said. "We wanted to argue it's a policy problem, reneging on the senior agreement. He's not a rebellious kid pushing the limit."

After four days of not going to school while the conflict resolution process was underway - another school decision the McGraths contested and wanted overturned - Charlie acquiesced. He buzzed the locks on the sides, shortened the back and kept the top longer.

Neither he nor his parents think it was the right thing to do. But the risk of him not receiving a diploma in May was too great, said McGrath, who works at the school and is the senior parent coordinator for the Class of 2014.

The family is now trying to get Charlie's absences excused so as to not jeopardize graduation requirements.

"The sad part is that there were mistakes made on their side - they didn't communicate well, they admitted it was confusing - and the only one it's affecting is Charlie," his mom said.

"We felt like Charlie was being bullied."

Harris said the issue has been resolved, and Charlie has been allowed to return to school.

Charlie's story is just one hairy case that's come up recently at charter schools, which are public schools, but operate independently from school districts and sometimes set stricter dress codes.

A violation of the dress code at a Grand Junction charter school, Caprock Academy, made national news last month, around the same time the McGraths were battling with their school. A third-grader was told she couldn't return to class after she shaved her head to show solidarity with an 11-year-old friend who is fighting cancer.

Amid public outcry, the school board voted 3-1 to make an exception and let her go back to class.

Caprock is one of 28 charter schools overseen by the Colorado Charter School Institute. The same standards of accountability apply to charters as other public schools, Hemming said.

The Colorado Safe Schools Act directs public school boards to establish a dress code policy that "prohibits students from wearing apparel that is deemed disruptive to the classroom environment or to the maintenance of a safe and orderly school."

It continues, "The dress code policy may require students to wear a school uniform or may establish the minimum standards of dress."

Individual schools can add to those state guidelines. That means policies run the gamut, Hemming said, and such flexibility reflects the premise of charter schools to be "reflective of a community and a community's needs."

Stacy Rader, spokeswoman for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, a nonprofit organization that supports the state's 200 charter campuses, said policies often are designed to complement schools' missions and models.

"It could be argued that this is the beauty of school choice," she said, "because families can select whichever public school - charter or traditional - that best fits their child's learning style and family priorities."

Last year, a student at a traditional public school in Greeley was sent home from school for dyeing her hair blue, which she said she didn't know was in violation of the school's dress code because of its affiliation with gang colors.

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