Two Hairy Stories

Published May 1, 2003

A public school policy that a judge regards as “stupid” nevertheless provides two lessons for private schools who wish to maintain their independence: It is vitally important–even in the absence of vouchers–to adopt and communicate written policies regarding acceptable behavior, and to follow approved procedures when changing them.

Two incidents last year involving the regulation of student hair length and hair style illustrate that students in public schools don’t always have the freedom to express themselves as they would like, nor do administrators in private schools always have the freedom they would like to regulate student expression.

The essential difference in the facts underlying the two rulings is that one judge upheld a long-standing, well-communicated policy in a public school, while another judge ruled that a newly enacted policy in a private school was “arbitrary and capricious.”

Judge Upholds Public School Ban on Cornrows

Last December, Senior U.S. District Court Judge Scott O. Wright in Kansas City, Missouri upheld a long-standing rule imposed by Boonville High School Coach Richard Smith that prohibits basketball players from wearing braided cornrows during games or practice.

Although warned about the rule during tryouts, 14-year-old Kolby A. Hurt refused to unbraid his hair and was benched for three games before his father filed a federal lawsuit charging the rule violated constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process.

Scott found Hurt and his father had agreed to abide by the rules and regulations established by Boonville, which included the restrictive rules on hair grooming that Coach Smith had implemented for the past eight years. He also noted all members of the basketball team except Hurt abide by the hair grooming rules. The rules, Scott declared, do not violate any constitutional or statutory rights of Hurt or his father.

“The Court finds and declares that federal courts cannot interfere in the local rule making power of school districts to regulate hair grooming for student athletes,” Scott wrote in his order. “The Court finds and declares that student athletes do not have a property right or liberty interest in their style of hair when participating in games.”

While making it clear he personally thought the cornrow ban was “stupid,” Wright pointed out federal appeals courts in general have deferred to the authority of the public schools and “must proceed with caution when asked to intrude upon the operations of public school systems.”

Private School: No Hair Below the Collar

Last October, Superior Court Judge Stephen J. Fortunato Jr. in Providence, Rhode Island ruled a private school may not dictate the length of a boy’s hair.

The case involved St. Raphael Academy and 15-year-old sophomore Russell Gorman III. When Gorman interviewed at St. Raphael’s and was accepted in January 2001, no one at the school took issue with his long hair, which fell six to eight inches below his shirt collar. Nothing in the Student Handbook at that time mandated hair length.

However, after Gorman had started his class work at St. Raphael in the Fall of 2001, he was advised he would have to cut his hair or face expulsion. A restraining order prevented any expulsion during the 2001-02 school year, but a new Student Handbook was developed for 2002-03, with a rule stating hair could be no longer than the bottom of the shirt collar.

Gorman and his family insisted he be permitted to keep the style of hair he had at the time of admission until he graduated. Counsel for both sides approached the Court for direction.

After reviewing the facts of the case, Fortunato ruled the hair code regulation “is arbitrary and capricious” so far as regulating a male student’s hair length.

“[The hair code regulation] is arbitrary and capricious because it bears no rational relation to the legitimate mission statement of the school, nor does it in any ways (sic) inhibit or enhance the learning process or order and discipline at the school,” continued the Judge. “In short, the length of a male student’s hair is absolutely irrelevant to the educational process …”

Lest anyone think the Court is “opening the door for improper government meddling into the affairs of private schools,” Fortunato declared, “this Decision does not in any way interfere with the curriculum of St. Raphael Academy, its mission statement, or the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church with which it is affiliated.”

Private schools, wrote Fortunato, are licensed by the state “to educate children in large part as they see fit,” but with the express condition that they educate children to be citizens in a democracy.

“It would be anomalous indeed,” observed Fortunato, “if people entrusted with this important mission were permitted to impose a 24-hour rule mandating a purposeless conformity to an arbitrary hair code.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

Judge Scott O. Wright’s seven-page order of December 23, 2002, published on January 2, 2003, is available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for document #12072.

Judge Stephen J. Fortunato Jr.’s 34-page decision of October 24, 2002 is available from the Web site of The Providence Journal at It is also available through PolicyBot; search for document #12073.