Nov. 1, 2002 – The Board of Education has ruled in favor of a St. Croix junior high school honor student and his father who challenged a ban on male students wearing braided hairstyles to school.
At the same time, the board has upheld the right of the principal at John H. Woodson to enforce policies that promote discipline and safety among students.
In a 10-page ruling released on Friday, the board said 12-year-old Anthony Gibson met the burden of proof in arguing that the ban violated his constitutional rights. He told the board that he chose to wear his hair in corn-row braids in tribute to his African heritage after reading about slaves who adopted the hairstyle.
Attorney Lee Rohn, representing the Gibsons, told the board at an Oct. 23-24 hearing on the matter that Anthony was expressing free speech in so doing.
The opinion written by Ronald Russell, the school board's legal counsel, concurred: "The strength of Anthony's conviction was demonstrated by his success in improving his grades in order to gain the privilege. Gibson is an honor student with no history of disruptive behavior." Based on the youngster's testimony, Russell said, the board concluded that by wearing his hair in braids, he "was attempting to convey a particularized message about his African heritage."
Woodson Principal Vaughn Hewitt sent Anthony home on Sept. 19 because he came to school wearing corn rows in violation of the school dress code. The board denied a request to rescind the boy's suspension, ruling that he was never suspended in the first place.
But the decision does rescind the Woodson no-braids-for-boys rule, allowing Gibson and other male students to wear their hair braided without fear of sanctions.
At the hearing, Hewitt said the rule was imposed at the school after an off-campus altercation in 1992 when students wearing corn-rowed hair and others sporting Afro puffs squared off in a violent confrontation. He said the rule, in place before he joined Woodson as principal, was an effort to reduce the things children might fight about.
'Potential problems' no justification
But the board said efforts to head off potential problems need a sharper focus. "A braid rule that targets only male students based on the 'potential problems' that it can cause is not sufficiently narrowly drawn to address the school's concern regarding safety and the creation of a healthy learning environment," Russell wrote in his opinion.
The board also rejected Hewitt's decision to transfer Anthony to Arthur A. Richards Junior High School. The principal said he took the action after learning that the boy's home address is not within the Woodson school district. The decision came in the midst of the furor over the corn-rows hairstyle.
Shawn Gibson said Anthony was sent home with a written transfer notice on Sept. 30, after the parents had agreed to send their son to school with his hair unbraided while appealing the dress code requirement. The father said he ignored the order and sent his son back to Woodson because he had not been notified of the transfer in accordance with Education Department rules.
The board denied Rohn's demand that Hewitt be sanctioned for his actions and turned down a request for the reimbursement of attorney's fees.
Rohn said she was pleased for her client when she received word Friday afternoon that the case had been decided in the boy's favor. She also said she was disturbed by some of the testimony from Hewitt and some Education Department administrators as they tried to justify their actions.
"I was most concerned by the educational philosophy," she said, that young men should "be ashamed of their African-ness, and that they should play down their African-ness and their background, to look as much like Middle America as possible to get by in a discriminatory world."
Other youths wondered, 'Did we win?'
Rohn said she was surprised at the amount of interest the case had drawn. She recalled returning to her office from the hearing — to find a group of school-age boys wearing large Afros.
"When I got back," she said, "I had 20 kids waiting outside my office, waiting to hear what happened. They were sitting outside my office at quarter to six asking me, 'What happened? What happened? Did we win?'"
The school board executive director, Evadney Hodge, said she was not surprised by the interest the case generated. "It had been brewing for a few years," she said earlier this week.
Hodge stood by the board's disciplinary code, which includes violations of the student dress code. But in this case, she said, "the board had to get involved" because it was alleged that the decision to send Anthony home from school "abridged the student's right to free expression."
It has been a policy in the junior and senior high schools of St. Croix that male students cannot wear braids to school, although dreadlocks are allowed. Boys on St. Thomas are allowed to wear their hair braided. Braids are acceptable for girls in both districts.
When the corn-rows controversy first heated up, St. Croix Superintendent Terrence T. Joseph said the board's decision in the case would apply to students throughout the public school system.
Publisher's note : Like the St. Thomas Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.