John Van Ness says he spends the vast majority of his life wearing a hat.

"I guess the only times I don't wear it is when I'm taking a shower," said the Gloucester High School sophomore, whose favorite headpieces include an Air Jordan Nike cap, one spotlighting the state of Florida, and another paying homage to blues guitarist Popa Chubby.

But there is one place Van Ness and his fellow Gloucester High students cannot wear their hats. It's inside the school, where a handbook policy forbids them from donning hats, hoods, visors or other headgear.

Van Ness, 16, is trying to change that. He has been circulating a petition among students to change the school's policy and allow hats within the building.

Gloucester High Principal James Cook said he and other school administrators are willing to hear the students' pitch. But Cook and Superintendent Richard Safier also say the policy goes beyond regulating what students cannot wear as they pass through the school day.

"There is a practical concern, and that is that hats and coverings can hide a person's identity, whether seeing them in person or viewing them on a security camera," Cook said. "Also, there's a social convention signaling what's appropriate for the educational environment. When one enters the school, (removing a hat) is a reminder, a signal of a shifting of our behavior once we get inside that learning environment."

"Certainly, anytime students bring an issue to our attention, it's something we would take up as an administrative leadership team when we look to review our policies," Cook said. School leaders would then bring any proposed change to the School Committee. 

Freedom of expression

Van Ness said he has collected signatures from more than 180 of Gloucester High's 810 students to push for the school to drop the ban. He plans to bring the petition to Cook once he collects additional signatures.

Van Ness said he believes the ban violates provisions of state law, and borders on the unconstitutional when it comes to regulating freedom of expression. He said he hopes school officials will recognize that such expression can come through their attire, including headgear. He said he believes his hats are a part of his identity and free expression, and his parents, Peter and Vickie Van Ness, agree.

"The kid lives in his hat," Vickie Van Ness said. "He sometimes sleeps in it.  It really is an expression of himself, and school can be tough enough without being able to express who you are."

He also raised fairness issues, saying that while boys are routinely told to take off their hats in the school or have them confiscated until the end of the day, girls have been allowed to wear hats within the building. Van Ness also wonders about time spent by deans of students who police the policy or issue detention to students who are repeat offenders.

Cook and Safier acknowledge the policy should be enforced equitably for all students regardless of gender, and Cook says he believes that's generally the case. Cook said that any detention sentences are not due to a student wearing a hat, but for "insubordination" when a student refuses school officials' orders to remove it.

The policy regarding hats is decreed and implemented on a school-by-school basis, Safier said. The high school's policy is outlined within the school handbook's policy on appropriate dress within the building.

 

 

Van Ness, who grew up attending the now defunct Gloucester Community Arts Charter School then was home-schooled before entering Gloucester High year ago, pointed out that O'Maley Innovation Middle School dropped its headwear ban earlier this year.

Principal Lynne Beattie confirmed that was the case, but said O'Maley relaxed its policy to accommodate a student who had a need to wear a hat, she said. Beattie said that the school never changed its formal policy, and that O'Maley is going back to implementing and enforcing a headwear ban since the need is no longer present.  She did not elaborate on whether the need was tied to a student's health, religion or other issues.

Civic action

Cook said he respects the actions Van Ness and student signers are promoting.

"Civic engagement is one of the basic (actions) we promote as a school," he said. "And I know it's a big deal for the students. We encourage that."

But he said any reviews or potential change to the policy will not be immediate.

"Right now, we're focused on students needing support," he said as students prepare for MCAS testing, finals and year-end programs. "So it's not time yet for us to revisit this. But we will be revisiting our handbook, and this will be part of that."

Ray Lamont may be contacted at 978-675-2705, or rlamont@gloucestertimes.com.