Home School Management The modern mullet and challenges to school dress codes

The modern mullet and challenges to school dress codes


The modern mullet and challenges to school dress codes

Love them or hate them, dress codes play a key role in distinguishing one school from another and embedding themselves deeply into the traditions and identities of those institutions.

As such, it’s crucial for a principal to ensure their school adopts and enforces a straightforward and uniformly enforced dress code policy, while also allowing for reasonable accommodation when needed in respect of protected attributes, such a religious beliefs and gender identify and expression.

Students must also be able to comply with their school’s code or standard.

For example, if a policy requires children to have a ‘short back and sides scissor hair cut’, students with naturally curly hair may not be able to comply with such requirements and still have a neat haircut.

Indeed, hair standards continue to pose a challenge for dress codes, as demonstrated by the case of Taniela v Australian Christian College Moreton Ltd [2020] QCAT 249. In this case, a complaint was made on behalf of a five-year-old boy, Cyrus Taniela, that he had been subjected to discrimination on the basis of race.

Cyrus was required to cut his hair before the commencement of the second school semester of 2020 or be ‘unenrolled’. Cyrus was of Cook Island and Niuean descent and in accordance with a Cook Island custom for young boys, his hair had not been cut since birth so he could take part in a hair cutting ceremony around age seven or eight.

This ceremony ‘is a male rite-of-passage that symbolises the boy’s transition to manhood’ and was planned to take place on Cyrus’s seventh birthday in September 2021 in Sydney. It was held that the requirement to have his hair cut breached the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 (Qld).

In October 2023, students at Emmanuel Catholic College in Melbourne singled out mullets as one of a list of “excessive” hairstyles now prohibited at the school. The new rule triggered a major pushback from students, who wrote an open letter to the school that included a petition in order to get the decision reversed.

“Mullets are a popular Australian hairstyle and it’s unclear why it is deemed as unacceptable, as many students have mullet hairstyles already despite the expectations and are often not extreme,” the students wrote.

The principal, Janine Biggin told The Guardian that holding students to account regarding adhering to the personal grooming and uniform policy was a matter of “equity and fairness”.

“As a matter of equity, comfort, and safety, along with pride in the college, we maintain clear expectations for student appearance and grooming,” she said, but added the school is also “listening to the voice and views” of its students.

With the modern mullet an increasingly popular hair style among young people, and with societal attitudes continuing to evolve, schools will undoubtedly face a number of legal challenges regarding dress codes.

So, how can principals proactively address these challenges?

Megan Kavanagh, a partner in Colin Biggers & Paisley’s employment and safety team says anti-discrimination legislation serves to protect against discrimination on the basis of certain attributes – including sex and sexual orientation, gender identity, culture and religion, in each state and territory.

“Where dress codes offend those protections, or are perceived to place limits on how people express protected attributes, they may be subject to challenge,” Kavanagh told The Educator.

“Consultation and communication is key to responding to challenges to dress codes. While dress codes can be clear and enforced, there should be a mechanism for seeking alteration. Where dress codes are slavishly enforced, it could give rise to risk.”

As the example of Cyrus Taniela and his cultural hair cutting ceremony shows, there is also a need for schools to better incorporate cultural practices and traditions into their dress code policies without compromising the uniformity and discipline that these codes aim to uphold.

Kavanagh says policies can be applied consistency, but there must be an avenue for flexibly.

“A strict approach may breach cultural and community expectations around identify, religious or cultural practice,” she said.

“For example, if different standards apply to different sexes [e.g., girls can have earrings, but boys cannot] then schools may be in direct and immediate breach of statutory protections. Such polices will likely be found to be unlawful.”

Kavanagh said reviewing policies to understand how they operate in practice, understanding the community a school serves and their needs and the needs of students, while providing a clear process for seeking flexibility can assist a school to enforce uniform expectations in a way does not breach anti-discrimination law.

Principals also must be mindful of balancing the need for a unified school identity, as represented by dress codes, with the increasing demand for individual expression and inclusivity – especially in diverse student populations.

“Where schools are ultimately about promoting the best interests of children, focusing on that interest may provide the right balance between enforcement and flexibility in the interpretation of dress codes,” Kavanagh said.

“Staff should be given support about how to engage with students and families around dress code violations and how to address non-compliance, without giving rise to further risk.”

Kavanagh said staff, students and community should understand the limited basis for providing flexibility around dress.

“Such flexibility is not about choice as much as it is about legal protections. Just because someone wants a mullet cut, doesn’t mean that they can have one in breach of the code if the reason for the hair cut does not relate to a protected attribute.”

Kavanagh said there are some practical steps or guidelines that principals can follow when revising or developing dress code policies to ensure they are legally compliant, culturally sensitive, and inclusive of all students, including those with diverse gender identities.

However, she noted that such matters are complex.

“A variety of issues should be considered in assessing and developing dress codes,” she said.

Kavanagh said that at a minimum, schools might:

  • consider the community (staff, parents, students) expectations and reason for the dress code.
  • understand the question of cost. Increasingly the cost of uniforms is providing a stress for some families.
  • be open to reasonable adjustment to ensure compliance with anti-discrimination protections for certain attribute.
  • ensure consultation around wholescale changes to dress codes.
  • enforce the policy consistently.

“Uniforms are still an important part of some school communities,” Kavanagh said.

“Principals and leaders can enforce those standards, provided in doing so they do not lose sight of the statutory obligation to provide flexibility in certain cases.”

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