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Bountiful student removes nose stud after school suspension

Published October 27, 2009 7:34 pm

Education » Piercing was expression of cultural heritage, but violated dress code
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Two weeks ago on the eve of Diwali, an official holiday in India known as the "Festival of Lights," Bountiful Jr. High School student Suzannah Pabla got her nose pierced.

Though not strictly a religious rite, the piercing was Suzannah's way of honoring her heritage. Her father is from India and a practicing Sikh. "I really love my family in India and thought it would make me feel closer to them," said the 12-year-old.

But the nose ring -- actually, a small, jeweled stud -- wasn't warmly embraced at school. In fact, the school suspended Suzannah until she agreed to remove the stud.

Bountiful Jr. is among many Davis County schools with dress codes that forbid body piercing (excepting ear lobes). The policy was drafted and endorsed by parents via the school's community council, and district officials say the school was merely doing its best to even-handedly enforce it.

"The school has an obligation to adhere to that policy, and that's what they've chosen to do," said district spokesman Christopher Williams.

But Suzannah's mother, Shirley Pabla, says the school's action was excessive, close-minded and bordering on discrimination.

Pabla was at the school substitute teaching on the day her daughter was sent to the principal's office for refusing to remove the piercing (there was no one available to oversee detention). Suzannah refused not on principle, but out of fear, because the post had adhered to her nose. She has since returned to school, wearing a clear plastic stud, which school officials have OK'd.

But Pabla laments the embarrassment this has caused her daughter and worries about the message it sends.

"It's not just the nose ring. I'm starting to think it's because she's brown," said Pabla, who says her older son endured racial slurs at school. "She's not a bad kid. She's not doing it to rebel."

A news account of Suzannah's experience caught the attention of Rajan Zed, a regular contributor to the Washington Post 's interfaith blog "On Faith," and chairman of the Indo-American Leadership Confederation. Zed is calling upon the school to amend its dress code, and publicly apologize to Suzannah and her family.

Pabla says she doesn't have the money to pitch a legal battle. It is uncertain whether that would even be successful.

"Case law swings both ways on this," said Carol Lear, Utah's top education lawyer in the state Office of Education.

The courts typically give schools broad leeway to impose dress codes, said Lear. But students must be given fair notice, the code must be uniformly enforced, and its aim should be to foster a safe learning environment and avert classroom disruptions.

"It can't be just because it offends your sensibilities," said Lear.

For example, Utah schools have strict weapons bans but have made allowances for Sikh teenage boys who, as a symbol of baptism, wear a traditional knife called a kirpan, Lear said.

"We've made accommodations, allowing them to sew it into their clothes," she said.

Bountiful Jr. principal Brent Stephens has only been with the school for two years and couldn't say how long the dress code has been in place. He said at the start of every school year, the code is sent home to parents who sign a paper saying they've read it to their children. In deciding to uphold the code, he deferred to district legal counsel.

Williams said the district would have allowed the piercing if it were done in religious observance. But based on advice from a local Interfaith Roundtable, "we determined piercing is more of a cultural practice, not a religious tenant."

Zed disagrees and says the distinction is more hazy than that.

Women in India have worn nose ornaments for centuries, and Hindu goddesses are commonly depicted wearing them, he said. Centuries ago, piercings were regarded a mark of beauty and social standing. It's a Hindu's way of honoring Parvathi, goddess of marriage. And ancient Ayurvedic texts associate piercing the left nostril with ease of childbirth, said Zed.

Suzannah isn't Hindu. She said she embraces her father's Sikh religion and her mother's Mormon faith.

But Zed argues, "This teenager sincerely believed that wearing a nose stud was part of her culture and religious heritage. The school is denying her the right to freely express that identity."

Suzannah doesn't want to make a federal case over a nose piercing, but says the whole experience "has been horrible."

When she returned to school, she was heckled by some students. Others have been supportive.

And though she "likes sparkly things" and doesn't want to wear the clear stud, she said, "I don't really have a choice."

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