10/29/2012 11:10 am ET Updated Dec 29, 2012

High School In The Community, New Haven Turnaround School Run By Teachers, Square Off In Law, Justice Debate On Free Speech

This piece comes to us courtesy of New Haven Independent.

A week before voters go to the polls, the two opposing campaigns squared off on a question: Does the U.S. Constitution "protect bad hair days"?

The spirited debate took place Wednesday morning among students at High School in the Community (HSC), a teacher-led alternative magnet high school that's launching a "turnaround" experiment this year with a focus on law and justice.

HSC students grabbed their fedoras and baseball caps and hopped on buses to the Worthington Hooker School for a formal debate that may enable them to wear those hats more often.

The school district bans kids from wearing hats and hoods in school, except for medical and religious purposes. But HSC is now under new management, run directly by the teachers union instead of by the district's central office. HSC is taking advantage of that freedom to let teachers rewrite curriculum, reinvent what "freshman" and "homework" mean--and reexamine school rules.

"We're giving you a chance to have a say in what goes on in school," Building Leader (aka Principal) Erik Good told students before the debate.

HSC currently lets each teacher decide whether to allow hats and hoods inside the classroom, he said. The school bans hats and hoods in hallways and the cafeteria, but the rule is "unevenly enforced." He asked students to listen to their classmates debate the issue and determine whether the school should lift the ban.

Students planned to spend a week campaigning on the issue before the entire student body gathers for a vote next Wednesday, Good said. HSC teachers have agreed to abide by the results of the vote, at least temporarily, he said.

With that introduction, debate class teacher Eftyhia Theodoropoulos kicked off the event before the school's 240-student body in the auditorium of the Hooker school on Whitney Avenue. HSC doesn't have a space where the entire school can comfortably gather. So teachers chose Hooker's newly renovated auditorium, complete with theater seating and a stage, for the Great Hat Debate.

Theodoropoulos set the resolution for the debate: "Hats and hoods should be allowed to be worn in the hallways and cafeteria at HSC." She assigned her students to one of two teams, pro and con.

Jesus Juarez opened the debate for the "pro" side.

"Responsibility is a process of trial and error," he said. Young adults need to "test the boundaries of society" in order to live within those boundaries, he argued.

"School is a learning environment," countered Taylor Settle. School should teach kids how to behave in "the real world," where it's unprofessional to wear hats or hoods.

What about companies like Google that let workers come to work in jeans and a sweatshirt? swung back Josh Huelsman. Schools should "allow students to dress comfortably."

Natasha Smalls and Jesus sparred over whether banning hoods would reduce the risk of crime. Then several students took the debate to a new level with Constitutional case law.

Does the First Amendment protect students' rights to dress how they want in school?

They gave a nuanced answer.

Students don't "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate," Quamar Dunkley argued, quoting the 1969 Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The court in that case allowed John and Mary Beth Tinker to wear black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War.

However, Quamar added, schools can limit students' right to free expression if their behavior or dress is "materially and substantially" disruptive to the school environment, he argued, citing Tinker v. Des Moines.

"Let's be real, people," Quamar said. "Hats at HSC are substantially and materially disruptive."

Some students may wear hats to represent a gang, he said. Most wear hats "for fashion, or to cover up bad hair days."

"The Constitution does not protect bad hair days," he argued.

David Rogers agreed with Quamar's legal analysis but disagreed with his take on the hat danger level. Hats don't disrupt the school day, he argued. David and Quamar, who aren't in the debate class, joined the event to provide legal expertise. The two are taking a new Constitutional Law class taught by former Bronx Defender Sarah Marchesi.

The legal question they raised--are hats disruptive?--took the most focus as the debate came to a close.

Hats and hoodies won't change the school environment at all, argued Jesus. "Vote for hats!"

No, they "create an unsafe environment," argued Taylor. That's why they're banned at Westfield Malls.

Students gave Taylor's team a skeptical response in a question and answer period following the debate.

"Do you really think hats cause that much of a distraction?" asked Damian Irizarry (pictured), who was holding an Oakland Raiders baseball cap in his hand.

What if the hat represents a good cause, such as cancer research? asked another student.

Is it fair to let some students cover their heads for religious purposes, while other students aren't allowed to cover theirs? asked another.

What about the kids who get straight As and still wear hats? asked Trevor Smith.

Trevor later listed several concerns with the hat ban.

Hats and hoods might help some kids focus on their schoolwork, he argued. And students should have freedom of expression, instead of being punished or stereotyped based on wearing clothing associated with crime.

"We're being judged based on what other people did in hats and hoods," he said.

Theodoropoulos had to cut off a lively discussion due to time constraints. She urged students to continue the conversation at lunch and in breaks between classes over the next week. Students plan to vote on the issue next Wednesday morning.

Building Leader Good said if students vote to overturn the hat ban, the school will honor that mandate--assuming that schools Superintendent Reggie Mayo "and other powers don't intervene in the way the Supreme Court does," and overturn the new law.

Good called Wednesday's debate the start of "what I hope will be a recurring experience in your HSC years," as the school shifts towards a heavier focus on the U.S. Constitution and law.

Previous Independent stories on High School in the Community:

Guv: End Social Promotion

History Class Hits The Streets

• "Misfit Josh" & Alex Get A 2nd Chance

Guess Who's Assigning The Homework Now

On Day 1, HSC Students Enter A New World

Frank Reports Detail Experiment's Ups & Downs

School Ditches Factory "Assembly Line"

State "Invites" HSC To Commissioner's Network

Teachers Union Will Run New "Turnaround"