Oct. 23, 2002 – School policy vs. freedom of expression. That was the debate Wednesday as the Board of Education met to decide whether a John H. Woodson Junior High School student will be allowed to attend classes wearing his hair in braided corn rows. A decision could come on Thursday and will be binding for students throughout the territory.
Anthony Gibson, 12, was sent home from school on Sept. 19 and again the following day for wearing the braids, which violate a school policy set forth in a newsletter issued by the Woodson principal before classes began this year.
Anthony's father, Shawn Gibson, had already requested a hearing on the matter by the school board when Woodson Principal Vaughn Hewitt sent a letter on Sept. 30 informing the boy's parents that he had been transferred to Arthur A. Richards Junior High.
Attorneys representing the Education Department and the Gibsons presented their case before the board on Wednesday in a Territorial Court meeting room on St. Croix.
"It's unbelievable, considering the state our educational system is in, that anyone would spend time and effort depriving students of their constitutional rights," Anthony and Shawn Gibson's attorney, Lee Rohn, said.
Rohn said Anthony prefers to wear his hair in corn rows as an expression of his African heritage and in remembrance of slavery. She cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that a student's decision to wear his or her hair a certain way as a statement of beliefs or a religion may not be violated by the school board.
Hewitt, she noted, "adopted this policy for male students only."
She said the principal refused to meet with Shawn Gibson to discuss the matter and suspended Anthony without following the proper protocol. When Anthony was dismissed from school the second time, on Sept. 20, Hewitt called police to escort the boy and his father off the school grounds.
"The child was told, 'If you wear your hair in braids again, we won't call your father to come pick you up, we'll call the police to come pick you up,'" Rohn told the school board.
She also said Hewitt slandered Anthony by saying that boys who wear braids are usually members of gangs.
Rohn asked that the Education Department discipline Hewitt for his failure to follow suspension policy, award attorney's fees to Shawn Gibson, and rule that any future decision against the wearing of braids be disallowed.
Education attorney Tregenza Roach argued that the policy, which is at least six years old, is in place to protect students.
"It is an easy thing for people to misconstrue," Roach said Wednesday night after the meeting. He said the issue is not with Anthony in particular. "This policy in place didn't just drop out of the sky, and it didn't arise out of this particular incident," he said.
The school has had problems in the past with students identifying themselves as members of a particular gang or group by wearing the braids, Roach said. "It's easy for people to say this is a trivial issue," he told the board, "but they are not on the front lines; they are not dealing with the schools on a day-to-day basis."
School officials have seen a noticeable decline in gang-related violence on the Woodson campus since implementation of the policy, Roach said. He challenged Rohn's citing of the 1969 Supreme Court decision, saying that the case had to do with students wearing armbands as a political statement and that the nation's highest court has consistently refused to hear cases dealing specifically with hair.
"In fact, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals dealt specifically with hair, and they said the school boards may determine those policies," Roach said.
For background on the corn rows controversy, see "Student's lawyer vows fight over hairstyle".
The hearing will continue on Thursday, Jorge Galiber, board chair, said, and after all testimony has been heard, the board will caucus to decide whether braids are acceptable.
Roach suggested that one board member, Claudette Petersen, recuse herself from the deliberations. He said Petersen, who also is president of the St. Croix Central High School Parent-Teacher Association, has stated publicly on radio talk shows that the braids should be allowed.
Prior to voting on the braids matter, the board will vote on whether Petersen should be allowed to participate in the hairstyle decision.
Board members present at the hearing in addition to Galiber and Petersen were Harry Daniel, Terrence D. Joseph, Keith Richards and Yvonne Williams. Gerald Hodge Sr. was excused, and Linda Thomas was absent.
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