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Pierced and forbidden: Students, parents poke holes in Hopewell's ban on body jewelry

Wednesday, December 29, 1999

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Rose Burkert wasn't trying to make a statement when she had her left eyebrow pierced two times and adorned with tiny silver hoops. She simply liked the way it looked.

  Brandt Mandrier, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School, is proud of the ring in his eyebrow. "There are a lot worse things he could be doing," says his mother. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

"I think it's neat," said the 17-year-old, a sophomore in the Hopewell Area School District.

Many of her friends at the Beaver County high school have similar piercings, Burkert noted, including her boyfriend, Jeremy Mihalik, who has two studs through his tongue.

But the students have run afoul of a new school district policy that attempts to ban body piercing any place but the ears. The policy, enacted by at least one other Western Pennsylvania district as well, has drawn complaints from students, parents and civil libertarians who regard it as an infringement on freedom of expression.

A member of the school gymnastics team and an honor roll student, Burkert was so pleased with the results of the eyebrow piercing last year that over the summer she decided to have her bellybutton and upper lip pierced as well.

"It's really more like body art," she said.

School officials, however, disagreed.

Though nothing in Hopewell's student policy specifically forbade the piercings, Burkert was told by Assistant Principal Michael Allison on the second day of classes this fall, that she had two options: Take the jewelry out, or leave school. When she refused, she was slapped with detention.

Fellow student Sara Newton, who's had an eyebrow ring for the past three years, and Sara's sister, Cadie, who had her nose pierced for her 15th birthday, were given the same ultimatum. And when they refused to remove the jewelry, "the school called and told me to come pick up my kids, because they'd been thrown out of school," said their mother, Julie Newton of Clinton.

Newton was surprised. Teachers and administrators had never before complained about Sara's eyebrow jewelry. Her surprise, however, quickly turned to anger.

Over the next two months, she said, 18-year-old Sara, a junior, was continually harassed over her piercing. When she tried covering it up with a Band-Aid, he mother says, "the principal told her it was against the rules to wear a Band-Aid to school."

When Newton complained to the school board, she said she was told a compromise resolution was in the works.

Then last month, the school board amended the district dress code to ban body piercing -- ears excepted.

Under the new policy, student dress cannot "disrupt or distract from the education environment of the school." In particular, rings in the nose, eyebrows, tongue, cheek or any other visible location besides the ears is prohibited, and the district reserves the right to evaluate "any emerging trend."

"We wanted to let the student body know we weren't going to put up with this foolishness," said former school board member Charles Adamski, who was board president when the amendment was approved.

"It's just totally inappropriate for young people to display this type of appearance ... We wanted to put a stop to it before it gets contagious."

Newton was outraged by the decision.

"They say these piercings are disruptive, but the only disruptions are narrow-minded teachers who are ostracizing students for their appearance," she said.

Allison declined to comment on the new policy, which took effect Nov. 23. Hopewell Superintendent Terry Mark did not return phone calls.

Most schools have policies that restrict what students can wear, typically banning items that depict alcohol, drugs, sex or anything indecent or that could be considered provocative, offensive or simply "inappropriate." East Allegheny and North Hills school districts, for example, are among the districts that forbid bare midriffs, spandex and halter tops. Duquesne City recently revised its dress code to ban hats, sweatbands and other head coverings.

Hopewell is not the only district in the area to ban piercing. The Jeannette School District in Westmoreland County last spring revised its student dress code to prohibit body piercing other than ears.

"We're trying to get kids back into a more regimented setting with a little more structure," said Fran Dinco, principal of Jeannette Senior High School. Baggy or excessively layered clothing that could conceal prohibited items or pose a safety hazard is also banned.

Though the district had to suspend a few students at the beginning of the year for ignoring the revised code, Dinco said, it's now "an accepted issue." Students know if teachers see them with forbidden body jewelry, they'll have to take it out.

The Pennsylvania School Code prohibits school officials from imposing limitations on hair and dress unless there is a health or safety hazard or it disrupts the educational process. While the Pennsylvania Department of Health has not recorded any cases of hepatitis or HIV as the result of body piercing, such perforations can pose medical problems.

If piercing instruments are not properly sterilized, bacterial infections can occur, said Joseph Bikowski, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Pittsburgh and a dermatologist in private practice in Sewickley. Keloids -- round, hard scar tissue -- are another common complication.

There can also be an allergic reaction if the jewelry is not made of stainless steel. And if a tongue is improperly pierced, "it can bleed, bleed, bleed," said Bikowski. Tongue piercing can also cause excessive drooling and speech impediments.

In Pennsylvania, there are no laws regulating body piercing, but most local shops require parental approval before piercing someone younger than 18.

Hot Rod Piercing Co. in the South Side will not pierce anyone younger than 16, even with parents' consent.

"Their bodies are changing as they're growing," said Paco, a piercer. For example, as a teen gets taller, her bellybutton piercing might migrate to the top of the navel. "So I really try to discourage it, even if they have their parents along."

While it gets a lot of inquiries about dress codes and uniforms, the Pennsylvania School Board Association hasn't seen an extraordinary number of policies banning body piercing.

"I'm not aware of a trend that a lot of districts are acting on," says Sharon Fissel, director of PSBA policy services.

While the West Jefferson Hills School District doesn't have a written policy against body piercing, kids must keep body jewelry covered with a bandage during gym class and sports to stop it from getting torn out or scratching another student.

Bart Rocco, principal of Thomas Jefferson High School, said he tries to encourage students to use "common sense" when considering piercing.

"We like to keep them informed about the dangers of it," he said.

Rocco also wants them to learn to accept who they are without having to stick needles through their cheeks, tongues or brows.

"A lot of times kids are looking for an identity and find it in the color of their hair or the earrings they wear in their nose or whatever," he said.

Likewise, while it restricts hats, short skirts and obscene slogans on T-shirts, Upper St. Clair School District hasn't felt the need to formally ban body piercing.

"We feel that dress is primarily the responsibility of the parents, and the school district tries to support the efforts of the parents," said Tom Labanc, Upper St. Clair's coordinator of community partnership and public relations.

Witold "Vic" Walczak, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Pittsburgh chapter, believes prohibiting body piercing violates a student's right of free expression, and that a teen's body piercing "is really between him and his parents."

A school would be "hard pressed," he said, to find any kind of medical evidence to support the proposition that body piercing is a public health problem, especially since it's become so common. As for it being a public safety issue, "you need more than an undifferentiated fear of disturbance."

"Something more is going on here than kids' health and safety," Walczak said. "If you really look at it, [Hopewell and Jeannette] want to control what these kids look like."

At Northgate High School, 14-year-old Lydia Plottel said she had her eyebrow pierced so people wouldn't think she was a "goody-two-shoes."

"I saw Elka [from MTV's "The Real World -- Boston"] do it on TV to rebel against everyone and I thought, 'This is awesome!' " said the ninth-grader.

While body piercing used to be restricted to "the freaks and the punk," Plottel said now even the "preppies" are doing it. Her proof?

Brandt Mandrier, a 17-year-old senior at Thomas Jefferson High School, is equally proud of the 3-month-old ring in his left eyebrow, even though he's not allowed to wear it when he's working at Waves music store in Century III Mall. But at his other job at Music X, his bosses have no problem with the tiny silver hoop.

"It's self-expression," he said.

His mother, Sharon, who signed the permission forms, agreed, even though it took some getting used to.

"There are a lot worse things he could be doing," she said with a laugh.

To ward off allegations of discrimination, Hopewell allows students who feel their First Amendment rights have been violated to appeal decisions to have the jewelry removed. They must, however, be able to demonstrate to the principal that they have a particular message they wish to convey, that those who view the message will understand it, that there is no less disruptive method of presenting the message, and that the health and safety of all students "would not be impaired by the communication."

Newton, however, scoffs at the notion her children's piercings are interfering with students' learning.

"If people are staring at my daughters, it's because they are beautiful, intelligent human beings, not because they have a barbell in their eyebrow."

She also rejects the argument that an eyebrow ring is more unsafe than traditional earrings.

As for Burkert, she has resigned herself to removing her lip and eyebrow decorations whenever she is on school property, but she's not happy about it.

"They're telling me I have to be like everyone else," said Burkert, "and I don't like that."

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