In Mundelein, Ill., sixth-grader Kyle Lindblom was stopped by the principal of Carl Sandburg Middle School and forced to remove an earring—triggering a major reevaluation of school rules. In Henry County, Ga., dozens of high school students are engaged in what the local papers call the Henry County Hair Wars—a face-off between long-locked males and a school board that has banned their trendy tresses. But on a steamy day at Roseville High in Mount Clemens, Mich., students recently followed the dress code to the letter: Instead of wearing shorts, which are strictly forbidden, some wore skirts. Trouble was, they were boys.
In other words, here we go again. The new school year, even as MTV stars flaunt the ratty-matty-fleecy-greasy Hairitage of the late ’60s, has seen tighter dress regulations that look more like Ike. “There are those who feel we tend to act the way we dress,” says Gary Marx, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “The school has become the place where the limits are being tested.”
For the vigilant educators, no-nos range from the traditional (too-short skirts) to the outrageous (underwear worn as outerwear), with innumerable variations in between: Lycra, ripped jeans, gold chains, cut-off jeans, tie-dyed shirts, see-through tops, Mohawk hairdos and shaved heads. “We’re constantly updating the list,” says Roseville principal Curt Winnega. “I just added ‘No spandex.’ And I sent home a boy who had on a T-shirt that said I’M IN FAVOR OF ELIMINATING AIDS. I WEAR A CONDOM. He came back wearing an Oxford cloth shirt. That’s more like it.”
Many students disagree. “I don’t see how clothes affect your learning,” says Roseville’s Jennifer Carra, 17, who on a very hot day last June violated Winnega’s “No tight shorts” rule and was sent home to change. “I missed almost the whole hour. Now, that was disruptive.” And many parents, themselves veterans of youthful protests, are siding with their kids: “If my son is almost old enough to be drafted, he can make his own decision about his hair,” says Wilbur Lockhart, 45, owner of a supermarket in Jasper, Ala., a community where parents and students banded together to fight a Walker High School code.
Freedom of expression, however, is not the central issue in many schools. The big concern: Eliminate competition to be best-dressed. Baltimore schools, for example, have forbidden such high-priced apparel as animal skin jackets. And in Detroit, at least six elementary schools have adopted voluntary uniforms.
The rags and regalia that end up on their hit lists, officials argue, can be more menacing than they look. Between 1983 and 1987 in Detroit, four boys were shot, two losing their lives, protecting their prized garb—leather jackets, jogging shoes, even a shirt that only looked like silk. Detroit schools have since banned many popular labels. “There was just too much extortion and peer pressure,” says Detroit Board of Education spokewoman Marilyn Shreves. To curb high-tech high school drug dealing, a number of schools around the country have even outlawed accessories like message beepers. And in most L.A. schools, bandannas are not allowed because they can symbolize gang affiliation, as can hats worn backwards or a preponderance of blue or red (the gang colors of the Crips and the Bloods).
Some argue that the pendulum is swinging so far toward conservative attire that drug-free and otherwise law-abiding kids are being unjustly labeled. When Walker High School’s new principal, Kenneth Abbott, established his controversial ban on hair below the collar, a committee of parents petitioned the school board to compromise by allowing ponytails. “That way, the boys could take their hair down after school and still maintain self-respect,” explains Judi Parnell, whose son Brent, 15, was suspended with 36 others. No dice. When Abbott issued a warning, Brent got shorn. “It’s not over,” says Judi, who, with her contractor husband, Larry, and other parents, is considering legal action. “The school has won a battle but not the war.”
In the country’s most dramatic showdown, Travis and Brian Wilkinson of Houston have stayed out of school since last October rather than shear their locks. Northbrook Senior High principal James King Jr. seems equally adamant about his ultimatum that the brothers cut their hair, which both wear to halfway down their backs. “I have expected just two things from my sons: to act responsibly and to use good judgment,” says their father, Dub, a close-cropped Vietnam veteran who runs a business-machine repair service from home. “I don’t hassle them about things like their hairstyles.” Dub has raised Brian, 17, and Travis, 15, and their brother, Ray, 19, since he and the boys’ mother divorced 10 years ago. To comply with Texas law, Brian and Travis are studying at home. “I think I’m learning more this way,” says Brian.
Last month Dub Wilkinson filed suit against the Spring Branch School District, claiming the rule about his sons’ hair length is unconstitutional because it is gender-based. “I just refuse to be the blunt instrument they use to beat my sons over the head about a haircut,” he says.
Such objections, though, have done little to sway school administrators. As Ed Parker, assistant superintendent of the Duncanville, Texas, school district, said: “We are seeking some form of government that brings back discipline and allows us to teach again.”
—Tim Allis, from bureau reports