HURRICANE — A Hurricane Middle School student has been barred from returning to class until she dyes her hair back to a "natural" color, but the girl's mother says school administrators are the ones in the wrong.
School administrators have the right to determine whether a student's hair color is too extreme, according to Washington County School District policy, but the policy's wording is too vague to be helpful to parents, according to Amy MacKay, whose daughter, Rylee MacKay, was kicked out of school last week for having hair that "didn't fit on the spectrum of natural color."
Rylee, 15, had dyed her hair red on Feb. 2 — the same shade she has been dying it since September, according to her mother.
"We talked to the hairdresser about the school rules and told her it had to stay in the natural color spectrum of red," MacKay said. "At the time, the color of hair Rylee wanted, the hairdresser and I both felt maybe it was too red, a little too bright, and we made her tone it down."
Rylee has had her hair dyed with the same mix every six weeks since September, according to MacKay, but it wasn't until Wednesday that school administrators felt it had become problematic. MacKay said she received a call from her husband on Wednesday saying school administrators had called and said Rylee would not be allowed back in class until her hair color was changed.
When MacKay explained she and her husband were both at work and could not leave to pick their daughter up, she was told by Vice Principal Jan Goodwin that Rylee could finish out the day, but would not be allowed back at school without dying her hair again.
"He suggested I go to Walmart and get a box," MacKay said. "I told him I had had it professionally done and that I didn't want it to turn orange. I asked him to give me until Monday so I could get it professionally done over the weekend."
MacKay said the school would not relent, saying Rylee would not be allowed back until she changed her hair.
"I was begging; I told him, ‘I run a daycare — I can't just leave work,' " she said. "He told me if it was important enough, I would find a way to leave."
Neither Hurricane Middle School nor the Washington County School District immediately returned requests for comment.
"Trying to do the right thing"
Ultimately, the school offered to let the ninth-grader stay through the end of the week, provided she stay in a room off the main office to do her schoolwork. But MacKay did not want her daughter sequestered in the office, saying she had already been humiliated enough by the experience.
When MacKay spoke with the principal, Dr. Roy Hoyt, she said he was a "little more understanding" and wanted to see if they could come to a compromise.
"I explained to him that we weren't trying to break the rules; we really were trying to do the right thing," MacKay said.
She said the problem is that the district policy is worded in a way that makes standards for dress and grooming arbitrary.
School district policy 3.1.4 states that "hair color should be within the spectrum of color that grows naturally."
"That rule is so vague; it's totally his opinion whether it's too bright or not," MacKay said. "There is no set standard, no hair palette you can look at and say, ‘OK, I'll go with that red.' "
Rylee was told to "tone her hair down" by Monday, or she would be suspended. She will be allowed to make up the work she has missed this week. But her mother refuses to make her dye her hair back to brown.
"I absolutely am not going to dye it brown. That is not an option," she said. "My daughter feels beautiful with the red hair. Changing her hair really changed her; she really blossomed."
MacKay said when the family moved to Hurricane two and a half years ago, Rylee had a difficult time fitting in. She was shy, quiet and a little resentful of moving to a new state at what is already a difficult time of life for many people.
"When she got red hair, she got compliments, and even her teachers told her, ‘Wow, your hair is beautiful,' and it really helped her," MacKay said. "She's said numerous times, ‘I'll always be a redhead. I'm never going brown again. I'll be a redhead until the day I die.' And now I have to say, ‘No, sorry, you have to dye it brown?' I'm not going to change it back."
"More pressing issues"
MacKay said she wants to find a color both she and the district can agree on — and she wants the district to develop a standard that is unambiguous. She said students being arbitrarily picked out of the crowd for not meeting vague definitions of standards is unfair to students who are trying to develop their own sense of self.
"I think there are way more pressing issues in this school. At this age, these kids are going through so much with peer pressure and trying to find themselves — look at the depression and teen suicide rates — and all we're doing is stifling them more," she said. "They have no leeway in how to become themselves. We don't let them do a lot of things for their own safety, but there's got to be some give. We're making little clones."
Hurricane Middle School is the latest in a series of Utah schools that have made national headlines for singling out students over "inappropriate attire."
In May, a Tooele teen was told her skirt was a half-inch too short. After her father wrote a blog post about it that was picked up by the Huffington Post, Tooele Junior High School found itself in the middle of a debate about the fairness with which the dress code had been enforced.
In September, dozens of teens were sent home from Stansbury High School's homecoming dance for attire that did not meet the dress code — but because of the wide array of dresses deemed inappropriate, many teens and parents were confused about how the school had interpreted the dress code.
Stansbury High principal Kendall Topham said at the time the issue was a case of a dress code that was perhaps too vague.
"It's been our dress standard in our previous handbooks but the vagueness seemed to come to the surface this time and, again, it needs to be addressed and we'll get it fixed," he said.
MacKay said in Hurricane's case, as well, she believes it is a case of having too vague a dress code. She said she understands there are rules that have to be followed, but said Hurricane's rules are unreasonable.
"I had rules and I made her stick to them. I wouldn't let her dye her hair until ninth grade and I didn't let her go all chunky or have stripes; there were still rules and standards, and she had to stick with them," she said. "We honestly tried to always do the right thing."