It all started last summer, two weeks before school got out. Kisteesha Lanegan, a then-freshman at Whitefish High School was called into Assistant Principal Kent Paulson’s office. She was told that, among other things, her dreadlocks, newly formed as of the beginning of the school year, would have to be gone before the beginning of the next.
Lanegan protested, asking why she hadn’t been told sooner, and informing the assistant principal that the only way to get rid of the dreadlocks, now that they had set, would be to shave her head. “I guess that’s what you’re going to have to do, then,” Paulson reportedly said.
Summer passed, and the new school year began. Lanegan arrived for the first day of class with a head full of dreads. Because she had not complied with the student appearance policy, which had been altered over the summer to specifically sanction dreadlocks and mohawks, she was asked to leave until her hairstyle changed. She didn’t come back. In fact, after 25 days away from school, Lanegan enrolled in Flathead High School in Kalispell because the school would both give her an education and allow her to keep her hairstyle. Unfortunately, Kalispell is a 20-minute commute each way from Whitefish, and Lanegan relies on a friend to get her to and from school, she says.
Whitefish Superintendent Jerry House stands by his school’s policy, stating that it has evolved and changed with the times, and is in place to give students boundaries of acceptable behavior. “We’re trying to prepare [students] for life,” House says. “School is more than two plus two. We also want to teach social behavior, emotional development and physical development.”
One of the main reasons Lanegan was suspended was to avoid bullying and teasing from her fellow students, House says. Some students, who sat next to Lanegan during her freshman year, complained that the dreadlocks smelled and asked to be moved away from her.
While House defends his decision to suspend Lanegan, he says the situation would have been different if she had been black. “That’s natural, that’s expected, that’s cultural,” he says of the dreadlocks. House insists the policy doesn’t create a double standard: “Is it natural for this white student to have this kind of hair? It is natural for other students to ask to be moved because they say the hair smells? Yeah, we see a difference.”
Dreadlocks originated among blacks in Jamaica. They came about in the 1920s, with the emergence of the Rastafarian religion. The religion interprets Leviticus 20:5, which reads “They shall not make baldness on their head,” to mean that hair should be left in its natural state. Therefore, by religious law, no Rastafarian may cut or comb their hair.
They instead allow it to form into dreadlocks. It takes a good deal more effort to form in straight, thin, Caucasian hair, and do not naturally “dread” without a little help.
Lanegan, for her part, didn’t give herself dreadlocks as a religious symbol. Instead, she simply got tired of the way her hair looked. She says she wanted a change.
Unfortunately, says Superintendent House, Lanegan’s new style is disruptive and prevents other students from learning. If she were black, Lanegan would have also been a distraction, continues House, but for another reason entirely.
“If a black person sits down in one of our classrooms with dreadlocks they are going to stand out because they are a person of color, not because of the dreadlocks,” House says. “We are a primarily white school.”
Of course, public schools have always had standards for their students’ appearance—standards that students have always tested. However, since the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, these standards have become more and more stringent, excluding everything from black trenchcoats to Marilyn Manson t-shirts. For example: In May of 1999, Kent McNew of Richmond, Va. was suspended from his high school because he dyed his hair blue. McNew sought representation from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in order to continue his education.
“Irrational policies unrelated to school safety or educational objectives, such as banning unusual hair colors create distrust of school officials at the very time we most need to have confidence in their leadership,” wrote Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia ACLU, in a letter to the school.
In June of that year, the U.S. District Court in Richmond ruled that McNew be reinstated in his school and given a means of making up his missed class work.
Since her suspension from Whitefish High School, Lanegan has spent her time outside of class cruising the town’s streets on her skateboard and washing dishes at the Grouse Mountain Lodge. She has no plans to challenge her suspension in court, but that hasn’t dampened media interest in her case. Calls from reporters around the country have filled the voice mailbox on her home phone.
Lanegan was also contacted by NBC’s “The Today Show,” but currently has no plans of making an appearance.