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Second-grader’s ‘distracting’ haircut gets him kicked out of class

School dress codes make sense because they provide some kind of order for what our kids can wear to class. But what’s a parent to do when a school takes a standard dress code policy too far?

Jakobe Sanden, a second-grader in Utah, learned the hard way that even an innocent hairstyle may still come under scrutiny at school. Sanden was sent home for a “distracting” haircut that his parents say represents his cultural heritage. What was this wildly distracting haircut that got a second-grader sent home from Santa Clara’s Arrowhead Elementary School?

It was a mohawk. And it wasn’t even a big one.

Jakobe’s parents were told that because students weren’t used to his new haircut, according to Arrowhead principal Susan Harrah, it could be a possible violation of the school’s grooming policy. Interestingly enough, the elementary school’s handbook didn’t specifically mention regulations for length or style of a haircut, only that hair color should fall within a natural hair color spectrum. The school handbook stated that grooming should not cause disruption in the educational process.

Jakobe’s parents (and almost any parents of little boys living in the 21st century) disagreed with the school’s interpretation of a “distracting” haircut. Because the mohawk represented Jakobe’s Native American heritage, his parents were advised to get a letter from their tribal leaders, which they compared to getting a letter from the state governor. Fortunately the tribal leaders were happy to comply. A letter was sent to the school district superintendent, and Jakobe — and his mohawk — are now back in class.

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Like every other dress code violation we see that makes the news, this battle over one child’s distracting haircut went down in a flurry of events. As parents, we need to take a step back and assess what’s really going on here. For Jakobe’s family, the fight for the mohawk had special significance because it represented their heritage. We saw similar cultural backlash just a few months ago when a 5-year-old was sent home from school for his “modern fade,” a popular haircut in the African-American community.

But this isn’t just a cultural concern. Forcing kids to miss out on their education because of a hairstyle is a wild overreaction to a nonconcern. What schools are failing to realize is that these “distracting” haircuts are nothing new.

Everyone may have freaked out about mohawks in the ’80s and ’90s when punk rockers started sporting the hairstyle (just like everyone freaked out about Elvis and his evil hips and rockabilly hair a few decades earlier), but in 2015, mohawks are the norm. We see mohawks on babies. We see mohawks on little boys. We see mohawks on teenagers. And we see mohawks on grown men.

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Today’s kids are also dyeing their hair and cutting it in all kinds of newfangled ways. Having “different” hair is common for today’s kids, making it hard to see how it could possibly distract anyone. When nearly every kid is rocking cool hair, it’s no longer an outlier. It’s the norm.

When dress code snafus like this make headlines, it seems like schools are setting parents up to fail. But there’s still something you can do to prevent your child from becoming the next “distraction” in the news.

Take a few moments to read the school handbook at the beginning of the year. Most are available online through a school’s website or as a hard copy from the school office. If your child wants to experiment with a new style or cut, check to see if it is expressly forbidden before you send them on their merry way. If you want to go the extra mile, ask an administrator about any new trends you don’t see mentioned in the handbook.

And if you think the school’s rules are outdated, speak up.

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It’s perfectly reasonable to ask students to not dress or groom in a way that is distracting. It’s also perfectly reasonable to expect a school to interpret its own rules in a way that is relevant to today’s students. The sad truth is, splitting hairs over a school policy can be just as disruptive as wearing a popular hairstyle to class.

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