The Education Act gives a school’s board of trustees powers to make rules. By enrolling “Johnny” at the school, it’s implied you have accepted those rules, including uniform requirements. A school can also insist students wear their uniforms on trips, including outside of school hours.
Okay, so Johnny’s wearing the uniform but he’s modified the trousers to “low-rider” and has been told he will be sent home if he doesn’t pull them up. Again, if Johnny refuses to wear the proper uniform, the school can warn him of the consequences – detention, stand-down, suspension or sometimes even expulsion.
What if your daughter is wearing jewellery which is culturally important to your family, but the school forbids it? Schools’ rights are not absolute. They are subject to the general laws, one of which is the Human Rights Act (HRA). It forbids any discrimination on the grounds of sex, religious or ethical belief, colour, race, ethnic or national origin, political belief, disability or age. The Human Rights Commission has upheld the right of Maori children to wear jewellery (taonga) at one school, even though jewellery was banned.
However, if your daughter has a ring inserted in her lip, there’s probably no breach of the HRA. Contrary to common perception, the Act does not prohibit discrimination on the grounds of appearance. Schools can decide piercings, along with tattoos, various styles of clothing, dreadlocks and dyed hair, are against the school rules.
What if a school tells your son to get a haircut? The rules haven’t really been tested on this one for many years. Today the courts would have to balance the student’s right to freedom of expression under the HRA, against the school’s right to govern itself.