Schools have bullies.
They always have, they always will.
School administrators tend to respond in a way that reflects their attitude towards the respective roles of the state and the citizen. Some perform the core legitimate function of the state: they punish bullies who physically abuse students, and take appropriate and modest steps to maintain order. Some attempt to micromanage student speech and conduct both on and off campus, to the point of punishing unpopular expression that might hurt somebody's feelings or sensibilities. And some believe it is the role of the school — and the state — to eliminate the occasion of bullying by eliminating any conduct that might draw the attention of a bully. That's the school administrator who tells you, after the tenth time that week you've been sucker-punched or your books thrown in the trash, "You should get to know them and be more friendly. You bring it on yourself, you know."
It looks as if Paul Smithson of Godley Independent School District falls into that third category.
Just ask Chris McGregor.
Chris McGregor is 12. He's trying to go to Godley Middle School in Texas. God knows that middle school, let alone middle school in Texas, is an inherently miserable experience that I wouldn't wish on anyone. But Chris just wants to go to school. He's a good student.
He also wants to wear a truly hideous haircut. Justin Bieber or Anton Chigurh wouldn't put up with this haircut. But Chris likes it, and feels it is right for him, and expresses how he feels about himself.
That won't do.
Godley Middle School and the Godley Independent School District have standards. Nonconforming haircuts don't meet those standards. So they've suspended Chris until he cuts his hair.
Superintendent Smithson explains:
But Smithson said the hair rule protects students and reflects community standards. "There's a reason in Texas they're called 'independent' school districts," he explained. "Bullying's a big thing, and we want to make sure everyone's dressed appropriately, someone doesn't bring attention to themselves so that someone says something to them, and all of a sudden we have a problem."
If you dress, or wear your hair, or act in a nonconformist way, bullies will get you. That's inconvenient for the school. Bullies are troublesome. They often have verminous amoral parents who indulge and defend their behavior. It's much easier to force the nonconforming kids to conform, in the hopes that will make it a bit less likely that the bullies will bother them. Plus, people who are indulged in nonconformism in hair, or dress, might expose other children to other nonconformist ideas.
Now, the cynics among you — a category I'd define as "people who went to middle school and weren't unreconstructed bullies themselves" — know that there's no avoiding a bully. You can dress the same, look the same, talk the same, but a bully will find some reason to bully. If you are the sort who would want to wear your hair differently than everyone else, it is certain that you will stand out somehow. A school policy — like a foreign policy — premised on appeasing bullies is doomed to ignominious failure at the expense of the rights of the bullied.
But that's complicated. Enforcing conformism is easy. Even a man like Paul Smithson can do it. And in doing so, and in enforcing any number of other policies based on inane and nannyish policies about what is in children's best interest, Smithson and his ilk teach the children a lesson — a lesson about the proper relationship among the individual citizen, his fellow citizens, and the state, and a lesson about the relative value of individualty.
I leave it to your imagination whether the Paul Smithsons of the world intend that lesson or not.
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