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SCHOOL BOARD DELAYS DECISION ON BOY'S HAIRSTYLE

Oct. 24, 2002 – John H. Woodson Junior High School student Anthony Gibson will have to wait until next week to hear from the Board of Education whether he will be allowed to attend school wearing his hair in corn rows.
After a two-day hearing on St. Croix, board chair Jorge Galiber said Thursday evening, the board members felt they needed more time to deliberate the case. He said a decision will be made by next Thursday.
According to Galiber, the board asked the attorneys representing the Education Department on one hand, and Anthony and his father, Shawn Gibson, on the other, to submit more detailed information about case law cited during the hearing.
"We'll meet Tuesday to hash out everything," Galiber said. "We need more information from both sides."
Anthony, 12, was sent home from school on Sept. 19 and again the following day for wearing the braids in his hair. It is against policy at Woodson for boys to wear their hair in corn rows.
The Gibsons' attorney, Lee Rohn, said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a student's decision to wear his or her hair a certain way as a statement of beliefs or a religion may not be violated by the school board.
But the Education Department attorney, Tregenza Roach, challenged Rohn's citing of the 1969 Supreme Court decision, saying that the case had to do with students wearing armbands as a political statement and that the nation's highest court has consistently refused to hear cases dealing specifically with hair.
"In fact, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals dealt specifically with hair, and they said the school boards may determine those policies," Roach said.
But both Anthony and his father, who also wears braids, said during their testimony that the corn rows are representative of respect for their African heritage and culture.
"My son testified [on Wednesday] that he was learning about Africans in school in the classroom, and then he decided he wanted to braid his hair like his African ancestors," Shawn Gibson said Thursday morning. "So, he came home and asked, and I told him he had to bring his grades up from B's and C's. He's done that, and he's been wearing his hair like that ever since."
Roach said the Woodson policy against corn rows, in place for at least six years, is intended to protect students, as some gang members identify themselves by similar braided hair styles.
But Shawn Gibson said Woodson Principal Vaughn Hewitt can't explain the thinking behind the rule because he inherited it. Further, Gibson said, the one incident of alleged gang activity that Hewitt referred to, a stabbing, "happened outside the campus, and he couldn't prove that corn rows had anything to do with it."
The board is tasked with deciding whether to allow boys to attend Woodson wearing their hair in corn rows, and its decision will set a precedent for the entire school system. As it stands now, principals have the latitude to determine for their respective schools what they deem an appropriate dress code.
Rohn also asked that the board grant attorney's fees to the Gibsons and impose disciplinary action against Hewitt for failing to follow protocol in suspending Anthony.
Galiber said the board voted to allow one of its members, Claudette Petersen, who also serves as president of the St. Croix Central High School Parent-Teacher Association, to cast her vote on the final decision.
Roach, at the onset of the hearing, charged that Petersen's ability to vote impartially was compromised because she has stated publicly on radio talk shows her position that the braids should be allowed.

Judi Shimel also contributed to this report.
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