A student at Caprock Academy of Grand Junction, Colorado, shaved her head to show solidarity with a friend fighting cancer. On that part of the story, everyone agrees.
Then, as the story goes in many popular accounts, the school callously kicked the student out of school, relenting only after media exposure and nationwide outrage forced it to. That part of the story is false.
Those interested in the real story—and that seems to be very few people indeed—may read on. Part of the real story is how irresponsible reporting fed a despicable witch hunt.
True, part of the real story is how a young charter school wrote an ill-planned dress and hair code and then substantially botched a public-relations crisis.
Let us begin with Caprock’s rules. Caprock has an extensive and rigorous dress code. It states, for example, “Clothing should not be excessively tight, or body hugging.” Although the school doesn’t require official uniforms, it does require uniform dress, specifying even the color and type of clothing that may be worn at school. The section on hair reads:
Ladies’ Hair: Should be neatly combed or styled. No shaved heads. Hair accessories must be red, white, navy, black or brown. Neat barrettes, headbands and “scrunchies” are permissible. Hair should not be arranged or colored so as to draw undue attention to the student. Hair must be natural looking and conservative in its color. Radical changes in hair color during the school year are unacceptable.
Personally I think this is overly demanding; if a girl wants to die her hair bright orange, I have no problem with that. But it’s not my school, and, within reason and within Constitutional limits (it is a government-funded school, after all), I think Caprock should be able to formulate its own policies.
The intent behind the “no shaved heads” rule seems to be to prevent shocking or gang-like behavior. Surely I do do not need to point out that head shaving is also part of the ritualistic practices of some very nasty sorts of people (hence the term “skin heads”).
But the rule does not adequately take into account the fact that people can shave their heads for perfectly reasonable reasons—as to undergo cancer treatment or to support a friend with cancer.
The rule book does take this into account to a degree. The rules (of which I have a copy) explicitly mention the concern with gangs—and they also explicitly allow for “medical or religious” exemptions:
Apparel advertising tobacco, alcohol, illegal substances, and/or offensive slogans are not acceptable attire at school- sponsored activities. Clothes making statements with sexual innuendoes are not allowed. The wearing of clothing, jewelry, or a style of grooming that is identified with membership in a gang will not be tolerated in school or at any school-sponsored activity. Apparel that interferes with or endangers self or others while participating in school or school sponsored-activities is not allowed. Dress will not be worn that causes or is likely to cause disruption of the educational process. The final decision as to the safety or unsuitability of the clothing, hair or jewelry will be left up to the Deans of Students. Anyone who cannot follow the dress code for medical or religious reasons should contact the Headmaster.
As has been correctly reported, the school issued a waiver to the student in question on precisely these grounds. The problem is that the rule’s default position is to allow no shaved heads; the default position should be that a “religious or medical” condition is presumed in cases of shaved heads (I mean, it’s not like there’s a racist “skin head” problem among young Grand Junction girls). The school should change its rules to explicitly allow for religious and medical exceptions, sans waiver. [March 27 Update: After more consideration, I think the school should add the following line to its rules: "Exceptions to this dress code may be made for bonafide religious, medical, or humanitarian reasons, as evaluated by the headmaster, acting headmaster, or school administrators."]
It might come as a surprise to many reading about the story to learn that the mother of the student in question is quite supportive of Caprock—although she sensibly argues the school should tweak its rules. Yesterday that woman, Jamie Renfro, posted the following on Facebook:
I would just like to say, from the bottom of our hearts…thank you! We never expected any of the support that we have received regarding Kamryn and Delaney. We are pleased with the decision that our school made to let Kamryn back in school today. She got up, got ready, and held her head high as she walked into her classroom this morning. To say her dad and I are proud, is a total understatement. Nate and I are so humbled from the outpouring of love and support from family, friends, and strangers. Our goal was just to get the shaved head policy at Kamryn’s school revised, and let her back in the classroom. That goal is on it’s way to being reached, with a meeting by the board being held this evening, as well as an invitation for Kamryn to return to school today. At no point during this ordeal was Kamryn’s school not supportive of her decision, nor show compassion…they just made a decision to enforce their dress code, which we were asking to be changed. They responded to all of our requests, and have treated us with nothing but respect the whole time. Now that we have seen just how much 2 little girls can change the world and touch so many hearts, we are asking for all of this attention to embrace awareness of childhood cancer. There are so many blessings that have come to light for our family the past couple of days, and we would like to use this as a platform, along with our best of friends…Delaney and Wendy, to remind everyone that Delaney is still in the fight of her life, and needs as much love, support and prayers as she can get. Thank you! Love, prayers, and hugs from the Renfro’s
Contrary to various media reports, at no point did Caprock try to deny the student a waiver. [January 27 Update: On Sunday, March 23, Jamie Renfro claimed that "the school" forbade her daughter to return to school until she grew her hair out. It is unclear to me whom Renfro contacted or what those parties discussed. On Monday the school's administrators announced the exemption hearing; it is unclear to me when precisely they reached the decision to hold a hearing. See the notes below.] Indeed, as Renfro points out, the school was consistently supportive of the student. What the school did do is follow its stated policies and pursue a waiver.
Following is the statement that Caprock sent out March 24:
It has come to our attention that reports have been circulating concerning a Caprock Academy student who has shaved her head to show solidarity with a friend who is fighting cancer. Caprock Academy does have a detailed dress code policy, which was created to promote safety, uniformity, and a non-distracting environment for the school’s students. Under this policy, shaved heads are not permitted. Exceptions, however, are sometimes made under exigent and extraordinary circumstances. While we cannot discuss the specifics of this situation, the Caprock Academy Board of Directors is calling a special meeting March 25, 2014, at 6:00 PM. The Board is expected to discuss this matter in executive session (discussions concerning individual students are conducted in executive session). We expect the Board will vote regarding a waiver of the policy following that executive session.
Catherine M. Norton Breman,
President and Chair of
Caprock Academy, Board of Directors
Although inanrtful, Breman’s remarks distinctly point to the waiver process already underway.
Unfortunately, various “journalists” quoted Breman out of context.
For example, a New York Daily News story from yesterday quoted included only this much: “In a statement released Monday, administrators said ‘shaved heads are not permitted.’” Okay, but the statement also discusses the exception waiver. Such “creative editing” is simply bad journalism. (The News‘s opening paragraph also wrongly implies that the school relented only in response to national outrage.)
Likewise, a story in USA Today quotes only part of Breman’s remarks, ignoring the part about the exception process already underway.
There is a lesson here for consumers of media: Do not assume that the story told by newspaper is the complete (or even an accurate) story, even if it appears in one of the most prestigious papers in the world. It is said that “half the truth is a great lie,” and the reporters for the New York Daily News and USA Today (among others) told only half the truth.
It is worth relating Caprock’s second statement, released yesterday:
Compassion and selfless acts of courage are to be commended and encouraged – in children and in adults -and we apologize that our policies and following our process for exceptions to those policies has, in any way, suggested that supporting any one’s but particularly a child’s, brave fight against cancer is anything less than an extraordinary cause worthy of our highest regard.
The Caprock Academy Board of Directors held a special meeting tonight to discuss a waiver to the dress code policy per the parents’ request. The Caprock Academy Board of Directors voted to approve the waiver to the dress code policy.
Although Caprock needs to tweak its policies, nothing the school did justifies the seething rage directed at the school by swarms of social media personalities. Some people literally called the school to threaten its teachers and the teachers’ children. Such behavior is reprehensible. Shame on the people conducting themselves in such a way, and shame on the “journalists” who are irresponsibly fanning the flames of this witch hunt.
To summarize, Caprock acted within the constraints of its written policies to expeditiously grant an exception to the girl who shaved her head for a good cause. This incident illustrates the need for Caprock to tweak its policies so that, in religious or medical cases, a waiver is not required. That is obvious.
Unlike almost all of the critics of Caprock, I actually know something about the school. Someone I know teaches there, and my nephew goes there. I have been to his basketball games at the school. I have seen his hand-written letters and heard his reviews of his classroom exercises that assure me he is getting a good-quality education.
Caprock certainly deserves criticism over its ill-thought-out rules, and it should fix its rules as quickly as possible. Caprock also deserves praise for acting quickly to grant an exception to its big-hearted student and for offering an exceptional-quality education to its students. As always, a sense of context goes a long way.
5:22 pm Update: As the Denver Post notes, the girl with cancer at the base of this story, Delaney Clements, is receiving care at Children’s Hospital. That facility has treated a number of children whom I personally know, and it is excellent. Please donate now.