I’m really not picking on the schools, though I’m sure it looks that way. There have just been a wave of strange controversies lately in the halls of academe….like the travails of J.T. Gaskins, 17, who is fighting with his charter school near Flint, Michigan.
J.T. is a model student; in fact, he was honored on his high school’s “Wall of Fame” for perfect behavior. But he’s doing his school work from home these days after being suspended by the school governing board of Madison Academy in Burton, Michigan. The reason: the length of his hair. J.T. is a leukemia survivor, and he decided over the holidays to grow out his hair, cut it all off and give it to a non-profit group called Locks of Love, which donates hairpieces to kids undergoing cancer treatments. He was inspired to get growing after learning that the sister of a family friend had cancer.
Gaskins’ long hair is violating school policy, however, and he was told to cut it, or go home. So home he went. “I fought cancer my entire life. I’m going to keep fighting this,” he said. “I’m not going to not give back just because my school says no.”
Your Ethics Quiz: Is the school unethical to suspend J.T. for his noble and unselfish act, or is J.T. at fault for violating a clear rule for his own purposes?
I think the right answer is that nobody is unethical here, but nobody is exactly right, either.
J.T. is selfless, noble, generous and brave. But rules don’t come with fine print that says those who are pure of heart can violate them at will, as long as it’s for a good cause. If the school lets one student keep his hair long, it cannot punish another for doing the same thing. Dress codes cannot be enforced with exemptions, unless a student literally has no choice…as with a leg cast, for example. The next student will argue that he is growing his hair as a tribute to his brother, recently killed in Afghanistan, defending his country. Another will bring a note from a shrink that his fragile self-esteem requires him to have hair long enough to cover his Spock-like ears. J.T.’s selfless act puts the school in an impossible position.
The school has a right to its rules. There is value to dress and grooming codes, because they establish that school, like the workplace, is for serious endeavors and distinct from casual recreation and private pursuits. They encourage discipline and respect. Nonetheless, situations like this render such codes oppressive and ridiculous. J.T., though this was not his objective (I hope), has made the hair length restrictions seem unfair, and the minute that happens, history tells us that any rule is doomed.
As for teachable moments, it is the school that is being schooled. The administrators say now that J.T. is the one being unreasonable, because they have offered various compromises (like letting him spray or oil up his hair to keep it behind his ears) and he has refused. Of course he has—because he’s holding all the cards, and when you have a straight flush, you play it for all it’s worth. The national media is focusing on the courageous cancer survivor now, and…yup, the school petitions to end the long hair rule have started.
Nobody is wrong, and nobody is right, but J.T. has perceived moral authority. When a school has to suspend a good student and cancer survivor for trying to help other kids with the disease, it is bucking utilitarian reasoning with a vengeance. This battle is no longer worth fighting, and continuing to fight it will just make J.T. a martyr and the school a target of contempt.