At a certain point, these headlines begin to sound like Mad Libs: Today, at a high school in (literally any town in America), a young woman was sent home from school for a dress code violation of (completely arbitrary standard of conventional appearance).
At least I’m not the only one rolling my eyes once hearing the all-too-familiar story of Savannah Keesee of West County High School in Park Hills, Missouri. Her mom is, too, and she’s talking to the news about it.
Savannah and her mother spent a quiet snow day at home, touching up her naturally red hair with a box of Garnier Nutrisse Light Intense Auburn. It turned Savannah’s hair a little brighter than expected, but the teen wasn’t expecting to be sent home from school for two days. She was told by her high school principal that her new look violated the school’s dress code policy.
The student handbook spells out the following: “Hair must be clean and well groomed. Only natural hair colors are permitted. Non-natural hair colors will not be permitted. (Ex. – green, purple, blue, etc.).” Savannah was told that her hair was not considered natural because it was “orange.”
It’s really tempting here to just throw my hands up say “But auburn IS a natural color!” while slapping down a few photos of Emma Stone—and frankly, I could stare at this screenshot of Fox 2 St. Louis reporter Rebecca Roberts holding up a clementine to this poor teenager’s head all morning. (“It doesn’t get more orange than a Clementine!”) But that argument actually misses the bigger picture altogether.
The American Civil Liberties Union website states that people express themselves through their dress as much as their speech, and technically, the First Amendment should protect student dress. And while the goal of the dress code is to “eliminate distraction,” these policies inhibit students' abilities to express themselves and experiment with identity—a critical step in adolescent development.
With a new one of these dress code-violation stories cropping up nearly every month, maybe it's time to reexamine these policies. In my opinion, it would be a very powerful message if the leaders of our nation’s schools chose not to judge on the length of a hemline or the color of a haircut, and rather, if they sent the message that it’s not your appearance that matters, but who you are inside, what you want to achieve, and how hard you want to work to get there.