Teenagers are always testing limits. That, simply, is what they do. Over the years, the validity of these limits may change. From time to time, parents and schools must decide which should be inviolable and which can be relaxed without drastic consequence. When teenagers continue to be subjected to a restriction they see as pointless or unreasonable, they react with customary intensity. The angst will be all the greater if that boundary involves something as superficial as fashion or pays no regard to what they see as the bigger picture.
As much is evident in the case of Lucan Battison, the Hawkes Bay teenager who was suspended from St John's College, a state-integrated Catholic boys' school, because his hair was too long. His dismay, and that of his father, culminated this week in a judicial review of the suspension in the High Court. Yesterday, Justice David Collins arrived at the kind of elegant solution that was required in the circumstances. The school's decision to suspend Lucan was unlawful, he said, and its rule over hair length, as worded, did not comply with common law requirement that it needed to be certain.
But Justice Collins also made it clear that his judgment related only to this case. It did not rule on the lawfulness of schools' rules that attempt to regulate a student's hair. Undisturbed, therefore, is the right of schools to set standards. But they must ensure the wording of any rule is precise, and that there is a correlation between the offending and the punishment. The seriousness of Lucan Battison's disobedience was not enough to warrant suspension. It had also been wrong of the school, said Justice Collins, to assess that Lucan's behaviour "could undermine discipline" and "could set a harmful example" to other students.
Critics of the Battisons have insisted that if Lucan wanted to breach the haircut rule, he should go to another school. At Napier Boys' High School, his hair would not be a problem. But there was no vacancy there. That option also sidestepped the issue of whether St John's was making far too much of Lucan's wish to follow fashion, which at the moment for him dictates a hairstyle that is either dishevelled or features a top knot. Clearly, it is not a wish shared by most of his fellow pupils. Indeed, the vast majority of teenagers show considerable maturity on such matters, as evidenced by the choice of clothing at schools that do not have uniforms.
It is reasonable to assume that St John's would not be on a slippery slope if it chose to overlook Lucan's hair. On that basis, the school was being unreasonable. Rather than worrying about his hair, it might look at the bigger picture. How is he doing at school and in other spheres of his life? A bravery award for rescuing two swimmers, good scholastic progress, and a place in the school's 1st XV suggest he is doing admirably well.
This was not really an area in which the school needed to maintain its authority. The sky has not fallen in when other schools have allowed long hair. St John's has the right to set clear and reasonable limits. But it has responsibility to recognise when circumstances warrant a relaxation. The outcome of this case reaffirms that.
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