Charlie McGrath, an 18-year-old senior at The Classical Academy, refuses to cut his long, messy hair, which has the tightly wound charter school threatening to keep him from classes until he complies.
Beyond a love of free-flowing locks, the problem stems from an annual contract between the administration and the seniors, where certain privileges, like wearing clothing that would otherwise violate the strict dress code, are negotiated. This year's version included a hair-length clause that would — if it were still in effect — cover Charlie's mop, which flows to the teenager's collarbone.
However, a March 7 email sent to parents from principal Sean Shields says that Shields "later realized that this privilege violated the dress code in a way that was not acceptable. At that time, the privilege was revoked and communicated through senior leadership."
In the Indy's offices last Friday, Charlie and his parents, Patrick and Marilee, the latter of whom also works at the Academy District 20 school's junior high as a parent coordinator, said the contract change was never made clear to the students or parents.
As of last week, Charlie had been forced to miss four days of school. He's recently been attending class pending the completion of an appeals process to allow him to keep his hair, but the family fears his tresses could derail his chance to graduate in two months.
"We've never explicitly been threatened that he can't graduate, or that they would take action like that, but it's a possibility," says Patrick. "After 15 absences, period, you're in serious jeopardy of not completing the semester."
Reached for comment, TCA spokeswoman Tisha Harris declined to elaborate much on the school's position. "Just because it's going through the appeals process, I can't comment on that right now," she says. "But I so wish I could, because there's more to the story."
Part of it is revealed in emails between the McGraths and the school, provided to the Indy by the family.
In one sent to director of academic services Wesley Jolly on March 11, Patrick writes that "we are not fond of Charlie's hair, but have provided him this freedom within the high school communicated boundaries." Jolly responded on March 12 that the hair-length portion of the contract was revoked, and, in underlined text: "The expectation is that Charlie will come to school Friday and that he, in so doing, will be in compliance with the guidance given and the TCA policy reflected in the Secondary Student Handbook regarding his hair. ...
"Repeated failure to follow the direction given could meet the requirements for defiance and is addressed in the Secondary Student Handbook on page 17: 'If a student repeatedly violates the policy guidance, further disciplinary actions including suspensions may be invoked.'"
This ultimately escalated to a series of emails and meetings with TCA's executive director, Gary Coulter, who began a March 12 email with, "Mr. McGrath: To my mind, it is unfortunate that the issue with Charlie's hair length has escalated to this level."
The couple says the comment is reflective of a tone struck by the school that's been "so sarcastic and condescending that it was shocking, really," as Marilee puts it.
And all this for a kid who takes rhetoric and plays the drums in two bands — The Charles, and RAW RAH, both of which are playing the Black Sheep this week — and who graduates for good in May.
Why not just cut the hair?
"Um, well, I shouldn't have to," says Charlie. "And I like it — I like my hair. A lot of my friends like my hair. It's nice for being in a band."