Wed | Aug 16, 2017

Editorial | A better test than hair

Published:Wednesday | June 7, 2017 | 6:00 AM

Very far from the first time, Jamaica's education authorities are exercised over the hairstyle of a student.

Eight months ago, it was the case of Zavia Assam, a three-year-old boy who was declined entry by the private Hopefield Preparatory School because of his parents' refusal to trim his frizzy Afro. Over the past week, it has been the issue of a 10th-grade boy at the government-run Vauxhall High School in Kingston, whose hair was allegedly forcibly cut by teachers, three of whom now face criminal charges in the courts.

As several of his predecessors pledged many times before, the education minister, Ruel Reid, has promised to outline the Government's policy that should bring clarity to the breadth of authority of schools to set standards for the grooming and discipline of their students. In that event, this should be the last of matters of this type, which, not infrequently - often affecting Rastafarian children - command national attention. We doubt, however, that that will be the case.

Not being privy to all the facts, we have no position on the merits of the criminal cases against the Vauxhall teachers. But there are fundamental principles at stake, as well as the tensions that ensue when individual rights collide with what a community, or some therein, deem to be rules necessary for the maintenance of cohesion, decency, and good order.

We don't know if there was any adherence or philosophy that attended the hairstyle of the Vauxhall student. But even if there wasn't, as we observed in relation to the Zavia Assam episode, the student would, under Section 13 (3) of the Constitution, have a right to freedom of expression, of which one's hairstyle is an element of assertion. Further, Section 13 (3) (i) (ii) protects Jamaicans from discrimination on the basis of their "race, place of origin, social class, colour, religion, or political opinion".

We recognise, however, that, as the Constitution points out, the exercise of individual rights should not prejudice the rights of others. Schools, like other structured institutions, given their critical role in moulding young minds, are expected to have values - the ethics, attitudes, morals and rules by which they operate. Some of those rules are for simple, practical, utilitarian reasons, such as the protection of health and ensuring the safety and welfare of the wider community.

In this regard, schools may set basic standards for behaviour, grooming and dress. But these regulations ought to be transparent and, especially in public/state institutions, not fashioned to be so onerous and to be a pretext for discrimination based on class. Further, implementation of the rules should not be an opportunity to debase the dignity of students because of how they may look, speak or where they live, which is too often the case in Jamaica.

At the time of the Zavia Assam controversy, we urged a thoughtful dialogue around these matters. That didn't happen. So, there is now handwringing over events at Vauxhall High. Mr Reid should not miss the opportunity for a frank debate this time, lest Jamaica, not too long from now, again find itself in this position.

Frankly, we would best judge the quality of a school by the performance of its students at CSEC, rather than the length or frizziness of their hair.