RICHMOND, Va. A student sent home on the first day of school for having pink hair was allowed to return to her suburban Richmond middle school after the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to go to court.
Within hours after Veronique Jade Bunk was back in class yesterday, Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley distributed a letter to local school superintendents accusing the ACLU of trying to micromanage schools.
"No one understands the importance of observing the legal rights of students more than you," Earley wrote in the letter sent to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Paul D. Stapleton. "But the ACLU continues to disregard our children's right to learn in a safe and productive environment."
Earley, noting that the ACLU had written to the school officials last week about students' expression rights, said Supreme Court rulings have made clear that students don't have the right to engage in conduct "that materially and substantially interferes with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school."
"If our school administrators tell us that certain behavior detracts from the learning environment, we should give them, not the ACLU, the benefit of the doubt," Earley wrote.
Rebecca Glenberg, legal director of the Virginia chapter of the ACLU, disputed Earley's suggestion that the civil liberties organization was unconcerned about school safety. But in the case of Bunk, the Chesterfield County student who was sent home on Sept. 7 because of her pink hair, school safety wasn't an issue, Glenberg said.
"She did not pose any safety problem by virtue of having pink hair. That's the kind of example of suppression of free speech that we're concerned about," Glenberg said.
After Bunk was sent home, the ACLU sent a letter to Edward Leslie, principal of Midlothian Middle School where the girl is enrolled, demanding that she be allowed to return to school or the group would file a federal lawsuit.
Late on Sept. 7, school officials announced after a review of the case that Bunk could return to class.
"No student is out of school today at Midlothian Middle because of hair color," school system spokeswoman Debra Marlow said yesterday.
Bunk, 12, said she was suspended on Sept. 7 and was told not to return until her hair was a natural color.
"While I was still in homeroom I got called to the principal's office and he told me I had to go home because I had pink hair," the eighth-grader said. When her parents got to the school, she said, Leslie told them that the pink hair was distracting to other students.
County School Superintendent William Bosher said the principal was trying to counsel the girl and her parents about her clothing and hair. She was sent home for the day but was not suspended, he said.
"I've never suspended a young person for the color of their hair," Bosher said.
Last spring, the ACLU successfully represented a Surry County high school student who was suspended because he had blue hair. U.S. District Judge Robert Payne ordered the school to permit Kent McNew to return to class and the county paid more than $25,000 to the ACLU for legal costs.