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Proposed program would teach stylists how to deal with secrets spilled in the salon

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Stylists Nora Nugent (left) and Amber Leffler can spot signs of violent abuse because they've been victims of it too. - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • Stylists Nora Nugent (left) and Amber Leffler can spot signs of violent abuse because they've been victims of it too.

One in four. That's how many women in the United States experience some form of domestic violence in their lifetime, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Add in one in seven men, then consider that the vast majority don't report to law enforcement or seek medical treatment. To say that's a problem isn't controversial, but coming up with innovative ways to address it may be.

Colorado lawmakers, particularly some of the Democratic female ones, want to help abuse victims by regulating a typically apolitical relationship — that between individuals and their barber, hair stylist, nail technician, cosmetologist or aesthetician. House Bill 1175, brought by Rep. Edie Hooton, D-Boulder, would add a new requirement under the Barber and Cosmetologist Act that licensees must take a one-time, one-hour online course on how to spot abuse and what to do about it. Her proposal doesn't turn beauty professionals into mandatory reporters with obligations and liabilities — rather, it would train them to do the right thing when clients tell harrowing stories.

As someone who has both heard and told such stories, local stylist Nora Nugent, 20, is an ardent proponent. She began to appreciate the connection between hair and empowerment after filing for a restraining order against a boyfriend who was violent enough to cause her injuries requiring two surgeries and manipulative enough to convince her that was normal. Right before the first court date relating to the restraining order, Nugent, then a high school senior, chopped off about a foot of her long, brown hair.

"The look on his face when I walked in the courtroom ... It was like I took something from him," she recalls. "And that was the best feeling in the world, knowing he doesn't control me anymore."

The emotional and physical harm he inflicted hasn't fully healed, she says, but with each subsequent accomplishment — like making (partial) amends with her complicit parents, graduating from cosmetology school and going to work at the downtown Paloma Salon — Nugent feels she "get[s] more and more of myself back from him."

Now, cutting hair for a living, she's come to hear many stories like her own. "So many people have secrets," she says. "It's insane we don't talk about this."

Her co-worker, Amber Leffler, 34, is also ready to talk about it. Another survivor of domestic violence, Leffler already sees her role as quasi-therapeutic.

"Whenever someone comes in with hair down to their butt all like, 'I want a blue Mohawk!' I'm like, 'OK, honey what's going on in your life?'" she says, with a wry laugh. "Not everyone asks that, but I do. Usually when someone sits down, I can feel if there's something burning they need to talk about."

There's a fine line between compassionate conversation and prying, she's well aware, but often all it takes is a question.

"People tell their hairdressers things they don't tell anyone else," Leffler says. "Heartbreak, past trauma, terrible stuff from childhood. And, you know, they're sitting there telling me this story, looking at themself in the mirror, it's almost like they're telling themself who they are and who they could be."

She's witnessed revelations in her chair. "They'll be circling around an idea, then you spin them around to show off the finished product and it's like they look at themselves in this new way," Leffler says. "Like 'Aha! I know what I need to do.'"

These two have a feel for what to do, but not every stylist does. And that's what HB1175 seeks to change. In its current form, the bill would direct the Department of Regulatory Agencies, which oversees occupational licensing, to develop the training. The state would be able to consult or contract with an experienced third party to provide the training either through designated membership organizations or remotely through an online course.

Lydia Waligorski, public policy director of the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which is likely to have a hand in implementation should the bill become law, spoke at the legislature prior to the committee vote. She acknowledged that one hour isn't enough time to go deep with the training and that not everyone will feel comfortable going to great lengths for someone who's ostensibly a stranger. "This is a really basic advocacy," she reassured the committee. "Just saying 'I believe you' and 'here's where you can go for help' is the most important thing you can do for a survivor."

Locally, that referral would potentially be to TESSA, a member organization of Waligorski's coalition that offers a safehouse, victim advocacy, counseling, children's programs and a crisis hotline. TESSA already does outreach to make these offerings known throughout the community, but training beauty professionals would take those efforts to a new venue.

Colorado wouldn't be the first to bring awareness into the salon. The Professional Beauty Association, a trade group, already runs a training program called CUT IT OUT in which educators visit schools, salons and events to conduct seminars. New York City's Administration for Children's Services has been operating a similar initiative since 2007. Last year, the State of Illinois became the first to mandate that licensed beauty professionals undergo such training. There's not enough data to demonstrate the law's effect yet, but Colorado is joined by Hawaii and California in attempting legislative copycats.

Where and how far government's reach ought to extend are valid questions in this context, but cost (at least to taxpayers) is not a factor. The fiscal note attached to HB1175 says the program would have no impact on the state budget, because the regulatory agency is cash funded — i.e., professionals will pay for it themselves. Legislative analysts put the cost of developing and implementing the program at $10,000 which, spread over the 57,000 professionals currently licensed under the Barber and Cosmetologist Act in Colorado, represents a 17-cent fee hike. As is, it costs $120 to get licensed and $46 to renew every two years.

Leffler and Nugent, the two downtown stylists, chuckled over the nominal price. As far as cost/benefit goes, Leffler sees the payoff like this: "I got into hairdressing knowing how powerful it can be. Because if you help someone change their look, they change their idea of themself and then they can change their life."

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