When an eighth-grade honor roll student recently got a trendy haircut with a few lines shaved on the right side of his head, school officials said it was too distracting and pulled him out of class.
The 14-year-old Tenaya Middle School student was given a packet and made to sit in a classroom with a teacher he did not know and one other student, said his mother, Erika Paggett, who asked that her son not be named. "He wasn't allowed to go to lunch. He was isolated the entire day," Paggett said.
"Most of the kids know that classroom is for kids who get in trouble," she said. "No one was giving any thought to how this would affect my son, who has never been in trouble."
Paggett said she was told her son's hair was in violation of the school dress code, but she wondered how four lines – two going one way and two the other – on one side of her son's head could be a distraction. She posted her frustration and a letter she wrote to the Fresno Unified School District on Facebook, which was then shared and caught the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union. Together, they asked the district to get rid of vague language about haircuts in the dress code.
"It's ambiguous," Paggett said. "It allows for specific groups of cultural backgrounds to be isolated or treated different because they can't wear their hair a specific way. I want them to help me to get things changed, not just for my son but all kids."
Paggett's son got his hair cut about a week and a half ago, and no one at school seemed to notice for at least a couple days, she said. By the end of the week, her son was told to get his hair fixed. Paggett said she could not get an appointment with their barber over the weekend. When her son returned to school Monday, she told him to let the vice principal know that she was working on it. Her son received an honor roll certificate that day.
On Tuesday, Paggett called the school to let them know about the hold-up. Their barber did not have opening yet. Her son was later escorted by campus security to the isolated classroom and was told that he would remain in that room until he got a haircut or his hair grew back, Paggett said.
“We went back and forth about how (the haircut) was a violation,” Paggett said. She was told that the lines in his hair could be distracting to another student. “That’s subjective. There could be anything about another student that can be distracting," Paggett said. “I said that could be the same with shoes.”
The principal, Paggett said, suggested she take her son to a chain salon like Supercuts. "I can't just take my son into Supercuts and have them cut his hair in a way that he likes. They’re not familiar with our texture of hair. We have gone to many barbers through the city and we found a barber that works. We’re not changing that. I let her know I’m willing to comply. I’m willing to get his hair cut. I’m just not able to do that right now," she said.
At issue is language of the dress code policy “that is open to interpretation," said Abre’ Conner, the ACLU staff attorney who represented Paggett and her son in talks with the district. "These types of provisions end up harming students of color, LGBT students and students who might be underrepresented within the district,” she said.
In a statement, Superintendent Bob Nelson said, "Fresno Unified regrets any difficulty our student may have experienced as a result of the incident in question. However, please be assured that the district has initiated a review of its dress code policy. Until the district has completed the process of reviewing its policy, I have directed our schools not to enforce the specific prohibition on razor cuts as long as there’s no disruption to the educational environment or any danger to students."
Conner said the district agreed to refund Paggett the $20 cost of her son's second haircut, which she was able to schedule for the day after he was pulled out of class. The incident was expunged from his record, and he was given more time to make up work that he missed while out of the class, Conner said. The district also agreed to take a look at how it enforces the hair policy, she said.
This case is the latest in a string of criticism local school districts have faced in recent years about dress codes.
In May 2017, a 15-year-old Bullard High School student was removed from class because of a nose piercing. She and her mother questioned the district’s policy, saying it was inconsistently enforced and pushed students out of valuable class time.
A year earlier, a Buchanan High student asked the Clovis Unified district for a cultural exemption to keep his long hair because it is part of his black heritage. The district had a strict, decades-old policy that restricted boys' hair length and did not allow them to wear earrings. Clovis refused to grant him a waiver but later agreed to do so after meeting with the student and Conner, who represented him.
A couple months later, the district approved a gender-neutral dress code and dropped some of its policies.