Cayley Elswick likes to color her hair.
A fact which is only newsworthy, not because of the act, but the color.
Like many teen girls, she prefers a color other than the one which is her “natural” color. Her color, however, is not in the form of chunked highlights or purple tips from a high priced salon. For Cayley that color just happens to be blue (currently), but it has also been green, steel gray, pink and a few others. Cayley’s “natural” hair color is brown.
The 17-year-old Oakdale High School senior is described by those who know her as shy, polite, respectful and unassuming in nature. Not known as one to make waves or challenge authority, the high school senior’s recent actions of not complying with the Oakdale Joint Unified dress code might seem to some contradictory.
Cayley, with the support of her parents, challenged what she deemed to be an outdated item of the District Conduct Code when she made the decision to no longer conform to traditional hair color.
“I knew this was the rule since freshman year,” Cayley said. “I knew there would be some sort of problem.
“I felt the rule was outdated,” Cayley continued. “None of my teachers cared that I had colored hair. I actually asked them if it was a distraction.”
According to the senior it was a school Campus Monitor which brought it to her attention in the first week of school. Unlike her friends and fellow classmates, Cayley chose not to comply with the verbal warning. After multiple verbal warnings from Campus Monitors she found herself in the office of Vice Principal Pat King. She was advised by King that if her hair was not restored to a natural color by Oct. 1, she would be placed in in-house detention.
The OHS senior’s parents, Jim and Chris Elswick, were both aware of the conversations and warnings.
“My husband and I encouraged her to change her mind and get her senior year done, then she could do what she wanted,” mom Chris Elswick said of her daughter’s hair choice.
Initially the parents challenged their daughter to do research on the rule and present them with facts supporting her decision to proceed with opposition. Once they saw the passion and commitment their daughter had for changing a rule which she felt was outdated, the decision was made to support her.
“If no one ever fought a rule, you and I (women) wouldn’t be voting today,” Elswick said.
The guideline the senior was challenging states: “Hair which causes undue attention is not acceptable; i.e., unusual designs, colors other than natural hair tones, symbols, razor cuts, messages, Mohawks or unusual razor cuts. Complete razor shaving of the head is allowed.”
“Generally we do have them reviewed,” OJUSD Assistant Superintendent Larry Mendonca said of the conduct code. “This one in particular was last reviewed in 2013.”
According to the Assistant Superintendent, a committee comprised of students, teachers, classified staff and community members routinely reviews the Dress Code portion of the Conduct Code. The next review was previously set for the spring of 2016.
“The consensus at that time (2013) was unnatural hair color does create a distraction,” he said. “We are due for a review this spring.
“The parents understood the process,” Mendonca added of a private meeting with the Elswicks, “and they chose to support their daughter.”
“Mr. Mendonca was kind, gave us all the information we asked for and more,” Elswick said. “He explained things and took his time with us. We appreciated that. We were given options and we chose to go the route of having students, teachers and parents sign a petition. But once Cayley stated she was bringing in a petition she was told by the vice principal that it didn’t matter and she would be given in-house detention anyway.”
Mendonca stated he was unaware of the petition being supplied to anyone within the district.
“We gave this student weeks to correct this,” he said. “At some point if students don’t comply there has to be a consequence. We’re not looking to be strong armed. Things change, but again we want to go through the process.”
Notification of various news media by Cayley’s mother would prove to be the action which changed or detoured the course in which the decision would lead.
“I thought we were in a good place,” the assistant superintendent stated. “The next thing you know the news station is here. That was a surprise to me. I thought we had a plan to work with the family.”
“I contacted the media so she could share her story,” Elswick said, “and hopefully bring light to a policy that she feels is outdated. I was hoping for continued conversation and perhaps the media story would give us more time to communicate with the district regarding changing the policy.”
“I didn’t know they were coming until an hour before,” the OHS senior admitted of the TV news crew, confirming her tendency to be shy by nature and not seeking attention, but rather a rule change.
On Oct. 1 she was sent to in-house detention. She was advised that failure to correct the disciplinary act after three days would result in suspension.
Friday, Oct. 2 a meeting was called in the office of OHS Principal Mike Moore with Mendonca and the Elswicks.
“The decision was made to suspend any action with students who choose to express themselves through hair color,” Mendonca stated, reiterating that this portion of the dress code along with other policies will be readdressed in the spring.
“We do have to follow our process,” he added. “We are going to meet in the spring. We want to make sure we get this right. We want to have the right information.”
Cayley was invited to sit on the committee in the spring, an invitation she gladly accepted.
“There’s been some really rude comments, which I don’t understand,” the 17-year-old said. “One lady said that my mother has poor parenting skills because I don’t follow rules. That’s not it at all.”
When asked how she would define a parent with poor parenting skills, Cayley stated, “A parent that doesn’t really listen, care or try to help their child. That’s not my mom.
“I think it’s kind of crazy because it’s just hair color. It’s kind of over the top that it’s gone this far.”
“We were quite a bit stricter when our kids were younger, but gave them the opportunity to start expressing themselves in more creative ways as they got older,” Elswick added. “I’ve been helping color her hair since the summer after her seventh grade year. We’ve always dyed it back before school started. This year is the first year she didn’t agree. We supported her.”
“We certainly don’t want a policy that is not up to date or within the feeling of our district or our community,” Mendonca concluded. “We’ll tend to it and we just want to do it the correct way.”