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June 4, 2010 at 1:56 PM

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Hotheads collide over allergies and black hair

Posted by Lynne Varner

A what-the-heck kind of story comes from the Seattle School District where a student was removed from class for wearing olive oil-based hair products.

Let's be clear that we're getting only the father's side of the story. He is the author of the story in the above link and a brief mention in KIRO TV's newscast doesn't go beyond his version. The teacher isn't talking. The school district clammed up when the parents hired a lawyer. But when the district was talking, it didn't dispute the father's version of events and called the teacher's actions unacceptable.

Was the only solution for a teacher sickened by the smell emanating from the hair of her 8-year-old African American student to remove her from class?


That the girl is the only black student in her class has obvious connotations, as it would if she were the only boy in a wheelchair or with carrot-colored hair or anything else that could be used to make one stand out at an age when all kids want to do is blend in.

I disagree with the father in one respect: the teacher's actions weren't racist. If the events are as the district and the parents say, the teacher shows, not racism, but an appalling lack of empathy. You need not be familiar with African American hair to know that it requires oil-based hair products as an essential part of grooming. Some people reach for the toothpaste every morning. I reach for the hair oil and then the toothpaste.

Knowing the student has to use something on her hair, discretion and understanding was in order. Whatever happened to picking up a telephone and telling the parents to replace "Suzy's" hair cream with something less irritating to the olfactory senses? Better yet, identify what chemicals or smells give the teacher trouble and inform the entire class that, for example, paraffin-based products are a no-no in class. Instead, she singled out a student who already stood out.

Allergic or chemical sensitivities in the workplace rightly demand attention. If your perfume makes your seatmate sick, obey her when she tells you to stop wearing it. Teachers are especially trained, or should be, to handle all the smells emanating from little bodies, lunchboxes and whatever Billy's Mom rubs on his rash. Aren't teachers hard-wired to incorporate teaching with heavy doses of empathy and humanity - and an open window if necessary? There is no need to humiliate an 8-year-old by removing them from class in front of their peers. Would you want to go back to that class?

The girl's parents are in line for some strong quesrtions as well. Why was it easier to find a lawyer than a new hair product for their child? Are they so estranged from the teacher that they couldn't call or drop by to say: "Listen, we've changed Suzy's hair product, next time you have a problem with her hair, hygiene or anything non-academic related, tell us not her." If they suspect the teacher is being less than genuine - and hiring a lawyer seem to indicate someone is suspicious of something - ask him or her what allergies they suffer from and whether they're under the care of an allergist. Federal healthy privacy laws won't let you get much more than that but its enough to determine whether this whole mess stems from a well-documented health concern or a teacher who doesn't care for certain hair smells, or certain kids. The latter must still be dealt with but it takes the burden off the child and her hair.

Our educational system faces enough challenges without a tiny girl's hair becoming the pretext for legal action and lengthy school absences. Every adult involved in this ought to figure out how to get this girl back in the classroom by Monday.

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