Individual rights vs. the right of a private Catholic high school to set and enforce policies for its students as it sees fit; both seem protected in our beloved Constitution, but sometimes in the real world, they also seem mutually exclusive.
Such is the unfortunate dilemma for 14-year-old student Braxton Schafer and O’Gorman High School in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. At issue is Schafer’s long dreadlocks which he wears, according to his adoptive mother, as a “crown of strength, power and spirituality,” adding that the dreadlocks have important cultural significance.
“The important part of that cultural piece is the length of the lock, not the actual lock itself,” Braxton’s mother Toni told school principal, Joan Mahoney, in an email, according to the Daily Mail.
“Strength, pride and a part of him,” she told KELO. “A piece of him that we won’t understand and most people in South Dakota don’t understand.”
Schafer had no problems regarding his dreadlocks while attending O’Gorman Junior High, but the policy of the high school’s dress code reportedly stipulates that male students must keep their hair “above the eyes and not touching the collar.”
The school’s position is that dreadlocks are not the issue, simply the policy on the length of hair that all other male students must comply with.
“People enroll in our Catholic schools, then they know what we stand for and they know what we are representing and the structure and environment that we will create for their family,” said Kyle Groos, president of Bishop O’Gorman Catholic Schools.
Despite negotiations between the school and Schafer’s parents, the end result is that the family decided it is in their best interest for Schafer to attend a different high school, citing a feeling that their son would likely be expelled. Because Schafer was allowed to wear his long hair up until he came to the high school, administrators agreed to allow him to stay until the end of the semester. The young man will be able to remain in the marching band and play on the football team in the meantime.
The school for its part denies it had plans to expel Schafer and evidently thought that negotiations were ongoing when they got the news that Schafer would be leaving, with a spokesperson noting:
“Despite representations to the contrary, at no time did school administrators tell the parents that if the student did not cut his hair, he would have to leave or be expelled.
‘The meeting with the parents ended with the understanding that further dialogue would occur in the hope of finding a resolution that would allow the student to remain at our school.”
Groos told KELO, “we’d love to have Braxton in our school, without a doubt, he’s a great young man,” but also noted that the policy is an “important part of who we are.”
Groos said the policy is necessary for “structure and discipline” so students may “focus on their faith, their service to others, academics and their own friendships.”
The earliest it would be possible to change the policy on hair length, Groos said, would be in 2023.
The boy’s father noted the decision that had to be made.
“Your choices are you cut your hair if you want to stay, or if you don’t want to cut your hair, we’re going to have to go,” Derrick Schafer told his son.
His mother contends that Braxton’s hairstyle is a “crown of strength, power and spirituality.”
“It’s in the length, and making yourself a crown,” she added emotionally.
This heartbreaking story of an apparently fine young man and an apparently fine old school system points out the sometimes-conflicting rights we Americans enjoy. It also cries out for some accommodation to square the two.
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