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Letter: Hat ban is vague policy without option for valid exceptions

While I agree with much of what was written in the recent “Sue’s Views” column regarding the revised Morris school dress code, there are a few more points that I think are important to consider.

I’m concerned that the new policy is too vague and ill defined. The dress code regarding hats simply reads:

“The dress code disallows clothing including but not limited to: …head apparel (hats, caps, skullcaps etc.)”

Head apparel is a broad term and there seems to be no indication of what exactly will be included in that “etcetera.” Would bandanas and hoodies be banned as well? The new code also lists absolutely no exceptions to this rule. While many don’t see the need for exceptions, I can think of a number of valid situations in which they may be needed, many of which occurred during my time in the Morris Area School system. Here are a few:

When I was in school, there was a student who had to undergo chemotherapy to treat cancer. I know there has been at least one more student in that situation since then. Would they be allowed to wear hats?

Those of us who attended high school in the late 90s probably all remember that one winter that the boiler broke for a few days, but the temperature remained just high enough for classes to continue. We all wore our winter gear to class simply to stay warm. Would that be allowed under the new policy?

Some sports teams have hats as part of their official team uniforms. Would they be allowed to wear them to school on game days? What if they made it to state? Would those hats be banned from the pep rally under this new policy?

Should a student want to wear a top hat, fedora, or fascinator to prom, would that be allowed under the new policy?

There are many world religions whose adherents wear some form of full or partial head covering. Examples of this include, but are not limited to, the Muslim hijab, the Jewish yarmulke, and the Sikh turban. Even some Christian denominations, including some in west central Minnesota, commonly wear some type of head piece. Although some may argue that the Morris community doesn’t have a significant population of religious minorities, public school policy should be written in such a way that it accounts for and anticipates changing state demographics. Would such head coverings be allowed under this new policy? More so than being anticipatory and inclusive, school policy should at a minimum be constitutional. Any policy that bans head coverings without religious exemptions is not.

Most of the above examples have already occurred in Morris and the new policy’s “one size fits all” approach doesn't seem to account for them or allow any discretion for individual circumstances. I bring these up to demonstrate that what may seem like a simple and clear cut policy is anything but. Under the previous policy, individual teachers were able to ban hats from their classrooms if they chose to do so. Most students were well aware of who did and did not allow hats and I struggle to think of a single time when the presence of a hat was a major distraction from my, or anyone else’s, learning experience. I would encourage the board to reconsider at least writing exceptions into the new policy.

However, even if exceptions were allowed, there is one more aspect that deserves consideration. In defending their decision to ban hats, school board members, along with the principal cited the issue of respect. But I have yet to hear of any solid evidence that has been provided demonstrating a culture of widespread disrespect in the school that is heavily interfering with academic achievement.

The best policy changes are made not on a whim, or due to desire, but based on a widely recognized need. The burden of proof lies on those crafting policy to demonstrate that such a need exists. Yet, even if evidence had been provided that there is indeed a culture of disrespect, the question that would need to be asked is not “Should we ban hats?” but rather “What can we do to build a culture of respect in our school?” Such a solution would require the input of all stakeholders: the board, administrators, teachers, parents, and students.

Respect cannot be mandated. It must be earned, reciprocated, and mutually owned. It cannot be gained through enforcing a rule from the top, but must be experienced and developed communally from the ground up. In the end, it’s a lot easier to ban hats than it is to wrestle with the larger questions of how to build respect in our communities. Should students feel their voices weren’t heard in this matter and decide to find a way to protest once school begins, that will detract from their formal learning experience far more than any hat ever could.