Before boys at Clovis Unified School District wore dresses to class to protest the controversial dress code, William Pleasant was fighting to keep a part of his cultural identity: his hair.
Pleasant, 17, likes to wear his black curls pulled back in a small ponytail; when he lets it down, it’s barely long enough to graze his shoulders. His hair was the reason he initially was not allowed to enroll in classes for his senior year at Buchanan High School, despite a 5.0 GPA, and is the cause of multiple detentions. It’s also behind the latest push against Clovis Unified’s decades-old dress code policy.
The controversial dress code forbids boys from having hair longer than their shirt collar, and earlobes must be visible. Boys also are not allowed to wear earrings, and the policy says skirts and dresses are acceptable for females, all of which has led to recent calls for a gender-neutral dress code.
Pleasant, who is biracial, asked the district for a cultural exemption from the policy because his hair is part of his black heritage, but Clovis Unified refused to grant him a waiver based on race. The district later agreed, after meeting with Pleasant, who hired an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
“I’m half black and have curly hair, and it has cultural significance to me. But they denied it,” Pleasant said. “My parents are divorced, and I’m only with my mom. I guess it ties me to my African-American roots, you know? It’s a part of my identity.”
In meetings with Pleasant and the ACLU, district officials assured them that hair regulation for boys would soon be a thing of the past – but that hasn’t happened yet.
In an unexpected vote last month, the Clovis Unified school board refused recommendations to make the dress code gender neutral, despite concerns that the policy breaks state law protecting gender expression.
The vote was especially a surprise to the ACLU. In a letter from the ACLU to Clovis Unified in August, the ACLU acknowledged an agreement that the dress code would be changed, saying “we are also encouraged that the district has committed to revising its dress code to make it gender equal and that you expect those revisions to be effective by the early part of the second semester.”
Now, district leaders say they won’t shy away from a legal fight to keep the policy in place. Proponents of the dress code say it’s an essential part of the long-instilled “Clovis way of life” and that it’s tied to the district’s high test scores; critics say it’s discriminatory and outdated.
Pleasant, who takes mostly Advanced Placement courses and plans to study environmental science in college, can’t help but laugh at the idea that his hair has any effect on his academics.
“I can say my hair has never affected my achievement. But I was almost denied my education because of it. They threatened to not let me take my finals,” he said. “Administrators and people that support (the dress code) say it’s directly linked to student success, and that Clovis schools are the best because of this, when really it’s one of the worst parts of the school district.”
ACLU attorney Abre’ Conner, who represented Pleasant, said while the district ultimately agreed to allow him an exemption, it has a long way to go when it comes to students’ rights and expression of those rights.
“It seemed like they didn’t understand that black students could have culture, and I don’t know if we changed their mind about that. But at the end of the day, it is not a school district’s place to tell a student whether or not something to do with their hair or something they wear is not something related to their cultural or religious identity. That is something for that student to decide,” she said.
“This isn’t the first time Clovis Unified has made a bad decision when it comes to students trying to get waivers in relation to cultural and religious reasons.”
The ACLU also stepped in last year when Clovis Unified barred a Native American student from wearing a ceremonial head-feather to graduation, citing the dress code policy. The student eventually was allowed to wear the feather, following a court hearing.
Conner said Friday that the ACLU has not ruled out legal action regarding the gender-equity issues in the policy.
Clovis Unified spokeswoman Kelly Avants would not discuss the details of Pleasant’s case, but said cultural and religious exemptions are taken seriously.
“It’s extraordinarily important to us to have a system in place and to be able to respect and value our students who bring a unique cultural or religious perspective to our school,” she said.
Since the board’s vote, a petition started by a student in favor of a dress code that sets a single standard regardless of gender has garnered more than 3,000 signatures. Students also have protested by swapping clothes to defy gender norms or writing sentiments like “dress code sucks” on their clothes.
“We’re working with students. It’s a fairly good lesson all around, about when you disagree with something, how do you go about constructively expressing that as good citizens of the United States? We’re helping kids channel that in productive ways,” Avants said.
“But it is our dress code – it’s been our dress code for a long time, and there are very strong, underlying reasons for it. It’s about providing a safe environment and a campus that’s conducive to learning.”
The school board will meet again Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at district headquarters, but there is no scheduled vote regarding the dress code.