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Principal Defends Campus No-Hat Policy : Education: Santa Monica High's Sylvia Rousseau says safety issues supersede free-speech considerations.

August 12, 1993|LOIS TIMNICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA MONICA — Some students and civil rights advocates at Santa Monica High School are riled up over principal Sylvia Rousseau's new no-hats policy, making her first public move since taking over from Bernard (Nardy) Samuels on July 1 a controversial one.

The ban is part of an effort to stem gang violence at the 2,500-student school.

It is not all that radical, given that most high schools in the Los Angeles area outlawed hats and other gang-associated garb in recent years. But Santa Monica High is different, a last bastion, some say, of individuality, and a few students have criticized the loss of freedom-of-hat as a first step in thought control.

Regardless, the ban is in character for Rousseau, a moving force in the turnaround of George Washington Prep in South Los Angeles, where she was assistant principal for five years. She has vowed to get similar results at her new Westside post, explaining, "I've come to Santa Monizca High, I think, at the request and mandate of a board and community to create the kind of school where the community and students can feel pride. We don't always agree on what that is, but there are some common areas: a safe campus and a campus whose programs and curriculum are designed to promote all children's progress and success, empowering them to make a contribution to society."

A hatless campus is only the first of many changes envisioned by Rousseau, who says she can't fathom the emphasis some are placing on the hat-as-symbol, rather than on the substance of what she is trying to accomplish.

"We shouldn't get caught in the quagmire of hats," she said. "The campus environment, physical or social, has to do with relationships between students, teachers, the community, relationships that bespeak a respect for each other in the midst of diversity. . . . We have work to do on this campus."

Santa Monica High is 46% Anglo, 32% Latino, 10% black and 10% Asian, and draws both middle-class and low-income students.

As for hats, "They are a major means by which students communicate gang affiliation or messages that precipitate conflict," she says. "Therefore one way to eliminate, to reduce, the tension and a known source of trouble is to remove the hats."

Rousseau is well aware that any such dictate can be seen as an infringement on one's rights, on freedom of expression.

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board member Michael Hill has voiced opposition to the policy, and student school board representative Jamil Jaffer opined after a recent community meeting where the rule was announced that "this is starting to get close to infringing on our Constitutional rights. . . . (When) you start telling people what to wear, you might as well start telling them what to think and what to say."

A few parents and community members also have spoken out against the hat policy at meetings or telephoned Rousseau to complain. But in defending her decision, Rousseau says, "In any society, if you want some degree of accord and mutual respect, people have to give up certain individual rights to promote the welfare of the many. Since we know that hats are a source of tension and conflict and a vehicle for turf-claiming and rivalry, we've made a simple request that is harmful to none and beneficial to all."

She said she wants to create "a safe haven, where no one has a need to be macho or defensive. . . . If students can't concentrate on this campus, then where? If they can't succeed here, where will they? Their options will be limited largely to perpetuating the cycle of violence. These are heavy issues, not just about wearing a hat."

Rousseau has scheduled a meeting with student leaders next week, when the new policy on hats will be further discussed.

Parents and the majority of the school board are solidly behind Rousseau on hats and whatever else she tries, saying the school's problems have too long been hidden and ignored.

"I would have never considered a dress code when I first came on the school board 13 years ago," said board member Mary Kay Kamath. "I feel very strongly about civil liberties issues, but I think we are in a different era now, and the problem is one of making our campuses safe and perceived as safe. It is important for us to try to work together with a new principal and let her try out this new policy."

Kamath said she is unaware of any problems or incidents directly linked to how a student was dressed, but said "some can unknowingly place themselves or others at risk . . . (and) we don't want to take that chance. I find this a very difficult issue, but we are on the same side. She can do whatever she wants so long as it's in line with school district policy. And her new policy certainly is."

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