Purple Haze

A Vail School District student and her family learn about the consequences of being different

When Sadie Pendleton dyed a streak of her hair purple, she was just trying to express herself.

But she did the dye job right before the beginning of the school year, and once she walked through the halls of Desert Sky Middle School in the Vail School District, Sadie and her parents learned that her school takes issue with certain forms of self-expression.

The 11-year-old told teachers and staff members that the streak of purple in the front section of her blonde hair wouldn't wash out for two months.

Nonetheless, she claims she was pulled aside continuously and told to wash it out immediately. Her parents say Sadie even missed a lunch when she was pulled out of line and told to wash out the streak yet again.

"It's upsetting to me that my daughter got a talking to about her hair instead of eating lunch," says her mother, Nilsa Pendleton. "She would come home crying, wondering what she did wrong. It's just a purple streak."

Throughout the incident, Sadie says she felt stupid and in trouble.

"I thought I was going to get expelled," she says.

In response to the way the school handled the situation, Sadie's parents put up a Web site (www.sadiependleton.com) and asked school officials to change the rules on hair dye.

The school's guidelines for student attire, including hair dye, clearly state: "Hair color should be natural as to not cause a distraction (unless it's for a school spirit event)."

Sadie's mother claims school officials did not call her until after the second day of classes.

"I believe instead of harassing the children, they should call the parents immediately," says Nilsa Pendleton. "We weren't trying to purposely break a rule."

The Pendletons say their frustration grew the more Sadie was harassed.

"We feel this is discriminating. Our daughter is not a distraction," says Nilsa Pendleton.

The Web site includes information about the incident, a petition to ask the school to change its rules on hair dye, First Amendment information and an open letter to the school's principal, Micah Mortensen.

Mortensen says the school's authority to implement rules comes from the site council, which consists of parents and school staff members who develop guidelines for students to follow each school year.

"They are written fairly to keep the school safe and orderly. The site council provides a voice from the parents," says Mortensen.

The Vail School District allows individual schools to make their own rules, including student dress codes, according to Debbie Hedgepeth, Vail's assistant superintendent of curriculum and professional development.

"The purpose of the site council is to give control to the school. We don't step in and take away their leadership," says Hedgepeth.

If there is a legal dispute, the district can intervene. However, Hedgepeth says that regarding the Pendleton family's complaint, the site council's rules are "in the realm of what's legal."

On Sept. 3, the Pendletons went to a site council meeting to try to change the rule.

"I wanted the rule removed or at least to restate what 'distraction' means," says her father, Benjamin Pendleton.

The Pendletons told the site council board that Sadie had never caused trouble in school and had always received good grades. Nilsa Pendleton explained that not all schools in the district have rules against hair dyeing. In particular, schools without the restriction still maintain similar academic success compared to Desert Sky, which received an excelling rating—the highest possible—from the Arizona Department of Education in the 2008-2009 school year, according to the state's Web site.

Two other middle schools in the Vail School District, Old Vail and Corona Foothills, received the same rating. Neither enforces a hair-dyeing policy, according to their Web sites.

The Catalina Foothills School District, where all of the schools have an excelling rating, also allows individual schools to make their own rules for students.

At Catalina Foothills' Esperero Canyon Middle School, principal Brian Lorimer says the site council is more focused on topics like school bullying and sexual harassment; they also approve school expenditures from tax-credit accounts.

"We have bylaws for the students, but nothing about hair dye," says Lorimer. "We welcome it, and we don't worry about those battles."

In the Amphitheater Public School District, the district makes guidelines, not the schools. Todd Jaeger, the associate to the superintendent/legal counsel, says his district doesn't restrict things like hair color unless it involves a safety issue.

"At the district level, we indicate that students can express their views through attire so long as there are no safety issues," says Jaeger, adding that safety issues could include gang messages and hazardous piercings, but not colorful hair. Nine of the 19 schools in Amphitheater are rated as excelling by the state.

However, Cindy Petersen, a Desert Sky staff member and site council representative, says the school is successful because it relies on its rules.

"We have a good mix of opinions, and that's what we go by. It's working, and we're successful," says Petersen.

At that Sept. 3 Desert Sky meeting, the site council declined to change the hair-color policy, because that could lead to more dress code changes.

Nilsa Pendleton says the site council made no further attempt to discuss the issue.

"They ignored us, really," she says.

The Pendletons are preparing for a February site council meeting, when the council will vote on guidelines for the next school year. Benjamin Pendleton says he will bring comments from their Web site to show community support.

In Sadie's case, after the first week of school, the Pendletons and school officials decided to let the purple hair dye fade out naturally.

"They wanted me to bleach my daughter's hair at first. I wasn't going to do that," says Nilsa Pendleton.

After the purple faded, Sadie says, she dyed her hair a more natural reddish-blonde. She has not been pulled aside, because the color is considered natural.