Sun | Sep 20, 2020

Editorial | PM must act; Virgos should appeal

Published:Wednesday | August 5, 2020 | 12:12 AM

Two things should now happen.

First, Prime Minister Andrew Holness must immediately back his declaration that schools should not bar students for wearing Afrocentric hairstyles by having the education ministry issue a directive to that effect to all state-financed institutions. This should not be misinterpreted to mean that we are against a policy for grooming in schools.

Second, Sherine Virgo, the mother of the child who, two years ago, brought the case against Kensington Primary School in Portmore to prevent her daughter being denied a place there because of her locked hair, should appeal the court’s decision, at least the ruling that hygiene, in this circumstance, could be a legitimate basis for the exclusion and, therefore, the infringement on the child’s right to freedom of expression.

For as Jamaica approaches the 58th anniversary of its Independence, having just celebrated the 182nd anniversary of the abolition of slavery, that matter highlights lingering issues of race, class and colour – as the Government recognised in its 2018 dress and grooming policy for students – with which the country is yet to seriously reckon, or resolve.

Further, given his public stance on the matter, and the public law/public policy issues that are at stake, Mr Holness, if the Government can’t legitimately finance the effort, should use his good offices in garnering civil society support in funding the Virgos legal campaign, up to the island’s final court, if necessary.

Kensington has a reputation as one of the Government’s better primary schools with respect to the preparedness of the students it delivers to the secondary system. It is in demand.

In 2018, the Virgos, Dale and Sherine, attempted to have their daughter, referred to as ZV in court documents, enrolled there. Mrs Virgo, however, was told that school policy required that the child’s locks be trimmed before she attended. The basis of that policy was the school’s claim of its experience of children with locks harbouring infestations of lice and junjo, the latter a Jamaican word for mould and mildew.

An obvious, and reasonable, interpretation of any such policy is that people who wear locks are inherently unhygienic. That is an old presumption. There was a time when Rastafarians, members of the religion that emerged in Jamaica in the 1930s, who worship Haile Selassie as god, were routinely rounded up and their dreadlocks trimmed.

These days, many people who do not assert the Rastafarian faith wear locks. For some, it is an assertion of ethnic identity, which, as with other ‘black’ hairstyles, sometimes does not find favour with people in authority, including in schools. In 2017, for instance, a student at Vauxhall High School in east Kingston had his locks removed by teachers. The year before that, a private preparatory school, Hopefield Preparatory, denied enrolment to a three-year-old boy because he had a frizzy Afro, which his mother declined to cut.

It is issues like these, and ongoing tensions over how students should dress, that caused the Government, in 2018, to issue its grooming policy, in which it acknowledged that “rules that dictate how students are required to wear their hair raise complex legal, culturally sensitive and deeply emotive issues ... ”. “The manner in which hair is worn is one of the most visible means of self-expression, providing an avenue for the outward manifestation of a person’s self-identity and image,” the document adds.

CALLOUS AND ARBITRARY

An estimated 92 per cent of Jamaica’s population is black.

Perhaps it is because of the complexities noted in the document why policy on hair remains woolly, causing schools, as did Kensington, to apply their own interpretation. That must now be fixed, along the lines stated by the prime minister.

That, however, won’t settle the raft of constitutional issues raised in the Virgo case, especially ZV’s right to freedom of expression, as identified by her locks. The court’s ruling implies that if the child’s mother had expressly informed the school at the point of registration, rather than in later pleadings, of the family’s Rastafarian faith, the outcome, in the absence of an exemption from Kensington’s anti-locks policy, might have been different.

“The school, through its then principal, indicated that … (ZV’s) locks are prohibited as there is a possibility that the hairstyle would lead to a lice or ‘junjo’ infestation,” wrote Justice Sonia Bertram Linton. “It is my view that hygiene does fall within the purview of Ali (a case from the UK to the European Court of Human Rights of a boy who was excluded from school) as a legitimate aim.”

That conclusion, as we understand it, is that Kensington’s policy met the test of the action that was reasonably justified in a democratic society for the infringement of people’s constitutional rights. We would like further jurisprudential tests of that position, hoping for a more liberal interpretation, for citizens, of the constitutional protections. For, to us, Kensington’s behaviour was callous and arbitrary.