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Nine-year-old Jack Kennedy got an unexpected lesson in equality last week when he was belittled and ostracized for wearing an earring to school. Fellow students did not dole out the social pressure and belittling, rather it came from Coolidge Intermediate Principal Eric Bruner, who claimed it was against school policy. Bruner informed Kennedy’s mother, Sheri, that the fourth grade boy would be sent home and not allowed to return to school unless he removed his earring. He did not want boys looking like “playas,” and that he wants them to be “respectable men.”
Sheri immediately questioned the validity of the policy.
“I can’t believe that with Ferndale Schools being so open to diversity, that they would have a policy like this,” she said. When she researched it, she found out that there was no such policy. “Jack has worn an earring ever since he was two years old. This was never an issue at Roosevelt (his previous school in the same district,)” she said.
The nine-year-old was perplexed. “That’s not fair that girls get to wear earrings but boys don’t,” he said as he played with his four sisters in the playground, the evening after his mother had a meeting with the principal.
“How come he can have tattoos but boys can’t wear earrings? That’s not fair either.” Kennedy was referring to the large tribal art tattoos that are visible on Principal Bruner’s arms and neck.
The previous day Kennedy had been pulled aside by a lunchroom aide who said that earrings weren’t allowed in school. The next morning Sheri was called in to either take out the earrings or take the boy home. She said she was told that Bruner was trying to “change the culture of the school,” and that he had been bothered when he’d heard a woman refer to her young son as a ‘playa.’ He tried to convince her to “let it go.”
Instead she stood up for her son and ultimately he agreed to let Jack stay in school for the day, suggesting they could discuss the situation further in a meeting that evening.
Sheri researched the legal issues over dress codes, and learned that schools cannot have different policies for male and female students. A public school cannot discriminate on the basis of gender, and there are questions over first amendment rights to free expression.
When contacted about this incident, Ferndale Schools Media Relations Specialist Stephanie Hall confirmed that there was no policy against wearing earrings, but that each school administration was in the process of creating policies for their individual building, with elementary principals working together for consistency, and that the policies would be out later in the school year.
Deputy Superintendent Henry Gold told BTL that the District was in the process of creating policies. He said that Ferndale Schools have always been very diverse and would never intentionally discriminate. Gold said, “there will not be any policies that treat boys differently than girls.”
Sheri and Jack are satisfied with the results.
“I told them that this is partly their fault, because this is how I was raised. I am a product of Ferndale Schools and I was raised to do the right thing and to stand up for others when they aren’t being treated fairly,” said Sheri. “There are other parents who just said ‘eh, whatever’ and told their kids to take their earring off at school and put it on when they get home. But I was raised to do the right thing. I want my son to know that I am here to stand up for him when he is in the right.”
Sheri added, “this was a good learning experience for everyone and I think the rest of the year will be just fine.”