ACLU Assists RI High School Student Barred From Mentoring Children Because of Her Hair Color

December 11, 2002 12:00 am

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

PROVIDENCE, RI — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today called on members of the Portsmouth School Committee to reverse an unwritten policy that bars an 18-year-old high school honors student from mentoring elementary school students because of her purple hair.

The policy, recently adopted by the district’s three elementary school principals, is aimed at Julie Cahill, whom ACLU of Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown called “any school’s dream of the ideal student.” In a two-page letter to school committee members, Brown asked them to “teach children the right lesson by undoing this grievous wrong.”

“I always thought that my actions spoke louder than my appearance,” said Cahill. “It shocked me that school officials would discriminate against me because of the way I look.”

Cahill is a National Honor Society member and a member of her school’s drama club, Thespian Society and school band. She is also assistant editor of the school’s literary magazine and a former class president. As a junior last year, she participated in the school district’s Teens Leading Children (TLC) program, in which high school students mentor fourth graders on drug abuse prevention and decision-making.

At this year’s TLC training session, Melville Elementary School principal Joanne Olson met Cahill for the first time and saw that she had purple hair and a lip ring. Olson told Julie she was not a good role model for the children because her appearance wasn’t of the “normal kind.” The other elementary school principals apparently all concurred in this assessment and quickly adopted a new (and unwritten) dress code for students participating in the TLC program, barring them from having facial piercings or “abnormally colored” hair.

“The narrow-mindedness of this decision is truly extraordinary,” Brown said in his letter to the school committee. “Surely it is no secret that role models come in all shapes, sizes, styles and even hair colors. As Cahill’s résumé so obviously shows, people with purple or pink hair, no less than blondes, can be excellent mentors to young kids. At the same time, drug treatment facilities are filled with natural brunettes. Indeed, having a person who chooses to look different might even teach young kids a thing or two about resisting peer pressure – one of the most potent promoters of drug use and poor decision-making.”

At a meeting with Cahill yesterday the Superintendent of Schools backed off his previous support of the principals’ decision and suggested that, over their continued objections, he would allow her to tutor children. However, he gave no indication that any other exceptions to the unofficial policy would be made. Cahill said today that she thought it was necessary for the issue to be addressed systemically so that no other students would encounter the discrimination she did.

Judith Kaye, a consultant who designs and conducts programs on diversity and tolerance for businesses, schools and government agencies, criticized the policy at an ACLU news conference today. “This sort of stereotyping hurts both the targeted person and the stereotyper,” she said. “With prejudice, our actions speak louder than lofty words about fairness. Portsmouth is speaking loudly with their actions in this case – the question we must ask is: what do they want to say?”

The committee is scheduled to discuss the matter at its next meeting on December 17. ACLU of Rhode Island volunteer attorney Amy Tabor will advocate on Cahill’s behalf at the meeting.

The letter to Portsmouth School Committee Members follows:

December 6, 2002

Dear Portsmouth School Committee Member:

“To the Young Children of Portsmouth: Remember that it is very important to judge people by their appearance, not by their skills, achievements, intelligence, compassion or generosity.”

I would hope that, as school committee members, you would be shocked if any one of your teachers taught your students such a thing. However, that is precisely the lesson your school district has recently taught elementary school children. Your elementary school principals have passed an unwritten “dress code” directly aimed at senior high school honors student Julie Cahill, preventing her from participating in your Teens Leading Children (TLC) program. On behalf of Ms. Cahill, we urge you to teach children the right lesson by undoing this grievous wrong.

Julie Cahill should be any school’s dream of the ideal student. She is a National Honor Society member; a member of the drama club, the Thespian Society, and the school band; assistant editor of the school’s literary magazine; and former class president. As a junior last year, she participated in the TLC program, which, as you know, gives high school students the opportunity to mentor fourth graders in the areas of substance abuse and decision-making. At Julie’s TLC training session this year, however, Melville school principal Joanne Olson learned something about this seemingly model student – Julie had purple hair and a lip ring. Olsen advised Julie that she was not a good role model for the children because her appearance wasn’t of the “normal kind.” The other elementary school principals apparently all concurred in this assessment and quickly adopted a new (unwritten) dress code for students participating in the TLC program, barring them from having facial piercing or “abnormally colored” hair.

The narrow-mindedness of this decision is truly extraordinary. Surely it is no secret that role models come in all shapes, sizes, styles and even hair colors. As Julie’s resume so obviously shows, people with purple or pink hair, no less than blondes, can be excellent mentors to young kids. At the same time, drug treatment facilities are filled with natural brunettes. Indeed, having a person who chooses to look different might even teach young kids a thing or two about resisting peer pressure – one of the most potent promoters of drug use and poor decision-making.

We have to believe that school administrators’ credibility simply loses force with many students if a person with purple hair is treated the same way as a drug dealer in terms of eligibility for mentoring in the TLC program. And what lesson does the banning of Julie teach fourth-graders who encounter “different looking” teens and adults outside the school? That such people are not trustworthy and up to no good? If that isn’t the lesson, then what exactly is the lesson being taught by this decision?

One school official has pointed out that, unlike the immutable characteristic of, say, skin color, Julie is free to remove the dye from her hair and the ring from her lip. But discrimination against blacks is not wrong because they can’t help being black – it is wrong because it treats a person unfairly on the basis of a totally irrelevant characteristic.

The blatant and troubling stereotyping underlying this decision is made all the more insupportable by the simple fact that Julie mentored last year, looking very similar to the way she does now, with no untoward consequences. There is surely more than a little irony that one of the four topics presented as part of the TLC program is: “Me Week – You Are Special.” In light of school officials’ demand for cookie-cutter conformity from Julie, can anybody really teach this topic with a straight face?

Although this year’s TLC program is done, Julie still faces consequences from this ill-conceived ban. As a member of the National Honor Society, she is a potential in-school tutor for children at the elementary schools. Should such an opportunity arise, however, Julie will not be able to assist because of the new “dress code.”

The ACLU urges you to do the right thing. At your meeting this month, we call upon you to rescind the “dress code” that has been adopted and allow Julie, and others like her, to participate in the TLC program, tutoring, and similar elementary school programs. It is not just the appropriate thing to do; it will also teach elementary school students in your district another very important lesson – that occasionally adults make mistakes and are willing to acknowledge and correct them.

Thank you in advance for your consideration of our views.

Sincerely,

Steven Brown

Executive Director

cc: Supt. Timothy Ryan

Principal Joanne Olson

Principal Dennis Silva

Principal Christina Martin

Principal Robert Littlefield

Julie Cahill

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