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Tuesday, Apr 05, 2005

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Opinion - Education


The cost of discipline

A.V. Swaminathan

MANY would probably have thought the recent controversy over an eight-year-old schoolboy's haircut was nothing more than a storm in a teacup. But to the distraught mother Sally Miller, the incident was an extreme provocation. She was justly irked at the highhandedness of the school official who took the decision to cut her son's hair without bothering to seek her approval. In shortening it, the trimming had been accomplished in a bizarre, amateurish fashion that "left next to nothing on his head," as stated by Miller, who added that "it was a step above a military buzz cut". The forced haircut shocked her as much as it left her embarrassed in the neighbourhood.

The unannounced ritual took place in a primary school in West Linn-Wilsonville School District in Portland (Oregon). The teacher, had no intention to take on the role of a beautician but merely wished to train what, in his opinion, seemed a surfeit of hair. The result was far from the neat, well-brushed appearance the fond mother had always maintained in her son's hairstyle. The uncouth spectacle as the youngster returned from school on October 11 (2004) grieved her much and hurt her pride, though generally she was unobtrusive by temperament. Sally Miller grew desperate and in a fit of overwhelming anguish, threatened to sue the School District.

An out-of-court settlement to avoid blow-up of the case and to provide a face-saving prospect for the beleaguered school ended with a $10,000 reparation for the wrongful haircut and the amount was to be paid to the litigant mother. This news item, reported in detail in The Oregonian, stirred my memory and I wished that St. Joseph's Boys School along with its principal had been in this District rather than in far-off Allahabad. I, too, could then have become richer by $10,000, a possibility that was unimaginable there. It was an almost identical event that had occurred way back in the 1970s, when one morning the principal went on a hair-clipping spree, targeting all boys who were found to have long hair. The sudden action was launched for no obvious reason except to satisfy a personal predilection for extreme discipline that was typical of his gruff, domineering disposition. Even marginal excesses in length beyond the boundary line on the scalp determined by him were abhorrent and had to be snipped away mercilessly.

My son, who was in one of the primary classes, was an unfortunate victim to the principal's rampage, although neither the shock of hair on his head nor its protrusion beyond the permissible limit looked culpable. Yet, the principal's unkind clippers were put to wreak havoc on the boy, who wept inconsolably at the crude finish. The ravage resulting from the hasty haircut called for correction at a hair-dresser's the very next day. Despite the professional touch bestowed, transforming the disorderly sheared hair to a status of acceptability proved a tough assignment even to the experienced hair-dresser.

The arbitrary and invasive act at St Joseph's School could have, indeed, sparked strong protests from parents, but nothing happened. In the US, the incident would, surely, have resulted in a lawsuit and claim for compensation.

One cannot forget how a prominent actress won a few million dollars through a suit she brought against an elevator company. While stepping out of the lift cabin as it landed on an upper floor, she had tripped and fallen over, losing a front tooth and, with it, all the natural glamour that used to boost her chances in earning her livelihood. Hence, the demand for making good the great loss incurred by her!

Instances of this kind get wide publicity in American newspapers from time to time and matters that may initially look ludicrous often lead to serious litigation and plea for ample compensation.

(The author is an engineering consultant and freelance writer.)

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