Ethics Quiz: Hair, Rules, School, and the Cancer Survivor

"I think this has gone far enough, son."

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.

15 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Hair, Rules, School, and the Cancer Survivor

  1. I agree with your assessment, Jack.

    I also think this is incredibly small thinking on the school’s part. If they had a bit of creativity, they could embrace JT’s concept and relax the rules for JT and other students who wished to participate in JT’s cause. Set a time limit for the amount of time it takes to grow hair to the required length. Make participating students sign a pledge in exchange for the hair length waiver, and then everyone gets shorn on the same day in order to ensure that no one can beat the system.

    Bonus: haircut day is the kind of thing the media loves to cover.

      • But of course, I didn’t write that, don’t believe it, and didn’t suggest that was the lesson here. In fact J.T. is doing it right: he is disobeying a rule that he believes shouldn’t apply in this case, and is willing to suffer the consequences of violating it. There are times when any rule can justifiably be violated, but the reason better be good, and just not liking it isn’t a good reason.

        I would also suggest that sarcasm without more does not create a very coherent or constructive argument.

  2. Haven’t we had this battle before, a private preschool in NYC? And JT’s school didn’t learn that lesson then? That allowing this particular student with his particular history to grow his hair out for this particular reason is a good thing, for many reasons … and that suspending him for it generates a no-win public relations nightmare? Would that all kids were so rebellious as JT ….

  3. Jack, I was in agreement with your post the first time I read it. But then it percolated for a while and I’ve read the other comments and I take a slightly different view of the situation and side (just slightly) with the school.

    It all seems a little too perfect. Here’s a successful kid whose been honored for “perfect behavior.” Couldn’t he also be getting a case of senioritis? He’s in his final semester of high school and would like to go out by rebelling against the school/administration that has oppressed him with its silly rules throughout his four years. Who better than a cancer survivor to pull this stunt? And it’s not like he’s at jeopardy for three strikes and you’re out with such model behavior.

    I also argue that his actions seems immature (but age appropriate for a teenager). He went from trying to due something positive (supposedly) for a sister of a family friend (two degrees of separation?) to shifting attention to a school policy rather than the illness. If he was sincere about his actions there are numerous other things that he could do: shave his head in solidarity with this person during chemo treatment, encourage others to do the same, recruit fellow female students and teachers to donate their hair to Locks of Love, participate in a Leukemia Society fundraiser, etc.

    Finally, there is the logistics challenge that nobody seems to recognize. Locks of Love only takes hair bound in a ponytail that measures a minimum of 10 inches. It’s will take him approximately two full years (at least) to get there. In that much time–convictions change.

    I’m just skeptical about his altruistic motivation.

    • That’s fair. Still, none of his public statements suggest that he has any motive like this, or even wants to buck the hair rule. I think he really thought that as long as he had a good motive, the rule would be waived.

      I really am sympathetic with the school’s position, but certain rules only work with near universal voluntary compliance, and once a cancer survivor was being punished, the jig was up. Arthur has the right idea—that would be the school’s best and most ethical course.

      • Arthur has a good idea–just not practical. I can’t imagine the school waiving a dress code requirement for two years. It would be different if the action could occur within a limited time frame (+-six months).

        Jack, maybe you should reach out to J.T. and announce that, as a sign of solidarity with his cause, you’ve shaved your head! That may shift his view into doing something else.

        Look, I’m all for a happy common ground that affords both parties a win in this case. Unfortunately it doesn’t look good for the school when the media throws in the “former cancer survivor” spin to the story because it makes them out to be the villain. So their options are limited. Perhaps they’re banking on the fact that this will die out soon and be a non-issue.

    • how do you figure that it would take him 2 years to grow his hair? cause when girls grow out their hair they want to cut it off with length and it takes longer how do you know that he doesn’t just wanna shave it all off as soon as he hits the 10 inch mark? look at facts, he never said he wants to rebel he never said he wants to compleatley erase the rule he just wanted to make it fair for boys and girls. can no one have a good heart anymore without thinking there are 2nd motives?

  4. I think that, instead of making yet another silly and useless “statement” stunt, that young man could have put together a club or organization that could actually have done some useful work in the cause he’s embraced. The circumstances of his cause, no matter how ennobling they may seem, do not put him above the rules that are intended to maintain good order and a proper studying environment… which is, after all, the central purpose of that school. If this young man has the notion that rules can be simply placed aside for him for this sort of stunt, then he reveals a dangerous mindset that is all too common today. A nation of men, not laws. He should be taught the fallacy of that concept before turning to outside causes. Time enough for that once he gets the basics of citizenship down pat.

    • How was it a statement stunt? He wanted to do something good by donating hair but he forgot to check with the administrators to make sure he could get a waiver on the hair policy at the school. Then he accepted the consiquences of his actions. How is that a stunt? I also dont see how haiving short hair has anything to do with “maintaining good order and a proper studying enviorment. ” It has to to do more with some out dated beleifs about whther men should wear their hair long or not. Which is also basically a mid 20th Century idea anyway.

  5. The school is being unethical just by having a dress code so the should shut up and not punish a student who is doing the right thing. Plus, the school should be taken to court. Dress codes violate the spirit of the 1st amendment and should be banned.

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