Since Hawke’s Bay student Lucan Battison won his High Court case on Friday, there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth from those who see Justice Collins’ judgment as stating that schools can’t enforce their own rules. Of course, that’s not what the judgment says at all (copy of the judgment attached here), but I guess the Paul Henry’s of this world don’t feel the need to let the facts get in the way of a good gripe.
The Court’s judgment makes two major points. Firstly, that the school’s rule regarding hair length and style was not certain. The school’s rule stated that students must have “hair that is short, tidy and of natural colour. Hair must be off the collar and out of the eyes.” Given that Lucan’s locks were worn tied up in a bun, it was deemed to comply with a possible reading of the rule, especially given that Lucan had worn his hair in that style for three years at the school without similar problem. The judge also noted that opinions differed as to whether Lucan’s hair was short, with Lucan providing evidence that at least one hairstylist thought his hair was short.
The second major point was that the Education Act prohibits suspension of a student unless the principal is satisfied on reasonable grounds that the student’s misconduct or continual disobedience is a harmful or dangerous example to the other students at the school. In Lucan’s case, the Judge noted:
“The fact one teacher was apparently unable to cope with the length of Lucan’s hair, and that other students may have been watching what happened to Lucan are not facts which satisfied the high threshold of Lucan being a harmful or dangerous example to other students.”
Essentially, suspension should be a last resort, used only when all other options have failed. The school could have prevented Lucan from representing the school in rugby or other extra-curricular activities, until such time as he ceased his disobedience.
The downside of the judgment, from the viewpoint of Boards of Trustees and principals, will undoubtedly be the extra effort that schools need to put into to ensure that contentious rules are clearly written. As Dr Bill Hodge says in the NZ Herald:
“You’d have to have a pretty good lawyer who is experienced in this sort of thing and it is not going to be easy to get these things right.
“And it is not just about hair — presumably it is also about bringing a Swiss army knife or aspirin or some sort of substance that isn’t necessarily an illegal high. All of these things will have to be prescribed to that standard. That just makes governance as well as management so much more difficult.”
My view? If a school is going to punish someone for a breach of a rule, the rule should be clear. If schools have to spend some time and effort in making their rules certain, then so be it. Sure, it’s more work for the school and its board, but it’s hardly the “sky falling’ situation that is painted by Paul Henry et al.