Whitefish High School’s dread of dreads

May 22, 2003

Kisteesha Lanegan has beautiful hair. It’s light brown with blondish highlights, and its dreadlock style suits the high school freshman. Around Whitefish, Kisteesha can be spotted cruising on her skateboard, dreadlocks waving in the breeze.

If Lanegan had her way, she’d be spending less time skating and more time studying. But last fall, when she showed up to begin classes at Whitefish High School, Lanegan was “sent home to fix her hair,” according to an affidavit filed recently by Superintendent Jerry House.

In his statement, which was submitted in response to Lanegan’s complaint to the Montana Human Rights Bureau, House doesn’t offer any suggestions about how one “fixes” dreadlocked hair. But the Whitefish school district has supervised the de-dreading of at least one other student, says Elizabeth Kaleva, general counsel with the Montana School Boards Association.

Kaleva recalls how one Whitefish High School student returned with dreadlocks from a study abroad program two school years ago and was given the summer to “work them out.”

“You cut the tips and it starts working itself out,” says Kaleva. When school started in the fall, the newly de-locked student was allowed to attend class at Whitefish High School.

Kaleva says Lanegan was given a similar chance to bring her hairstyle into compliance with the school’s dress code. But instead of undreading her hair, Lanegan showed up for class last fall with hair the school considered a “disruption.”

Kaleva insists that Lanegan was not suspended for her hairstyle, and that the school would have worked to keep her in class if Lanegan and her mother had shown up for a series of scheduled appointments with Superintendent House. Lanegan’s attorney counters, saying the school’s demand that Kisteesha change her hairstyle was tantamount to a suspension. The Human Rights Bureau will likely rule on Lanegan’s complaint sometime this summer.

At the center of Lanegan’s complaint is the charge that she was discriminated against for being a white kid with dreads. According to statements Superintendent House made to the Independent about his district’s no-dreads rule (see “Locked out,” by Brian Alterowitz, Oct. 3, 2002), race is considered before the rule is applied. House said the school might be more lenient toward a black student with dreads because, “That’s natural, that’s expected, that’s cultural.”

House is now denying that he made this and other statements. “I never stated nor implied that this dress code would not apply to any black student, or to any Rastafarian student,” affirms House in his affidavit. So no matter what color you are, dreads are grounds for disciplinary action at Whitefish schools.

After being asked to leave school last fall, Lanegan transferred to Flathead High School in Kalispell, but dropped out about a month later, saying that the half-hour drive was too inconvenient. Attorney Lori Miller recently tried to have Lanegan re-enrolled at Whitefish High School, but was told by school officials that “there was no point,” because the school year is almost finished.

“Essentially, they’re saying she can’t come back,” says Miller. At least, not until she finds a way “to fix her hair.”

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