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Public schools in Pennsylvania are free to require their students wear uniforms, but they don’t have the same authority when it comes to controlling students’ hair style and color, according to state law.

In Pennsylvania public schools, “how you wear your hair is considered a form of self-expression,” said Mary Catherine Roper, the deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Pennsylvania.

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Roper focused on legal protections for students at public schools, noting it’s “harder to put together a legal objection” to stricter dress codes at private schools.

While public schools can step in when a student’s hair presents a safety concern or a disruption to education, Roper said those determinations should be made on a case-by-case basis. 

And although the Pennsylvania Code’s clear language on the topic, Roper said the ACLU regularly intervenes on behalf of students in Pennsylvania who have gotten in trouble for “unnatural hair colors.” 

The code says students can pick the length and style of their hair, including facial hair. To limit this right, schools must provide evidence that the hair choice causes “disruption of the educational process or constitutes a health or safety hazard.”

That’s great news to Kimberly Acworth of Indulge Salon in York. “Years ago, you would never think that someone could walk into school and have purple, green, pink, all these rainbow colors. … It’s all about you being your authentic self.”

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Acworth attended a private school with a strict dress code, so she’s well aware that many students use their hair style to express themselves.

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Dana Schlosser opened Meta Hair Studio on 15 S. Beaver Street, which has been redeveloped with a flurry of new business openings this month.
Brett Sholtis

And with new hair advancements, especially in hair color, “you can basically be whoever you want to be and change it within 24 hours.”

Among trends that Acworth is seeing: Long hair for girls, highly customized hair colors and use of color extensions for an easy pop of color.

And while vibrant colors are common, so are gray and white.

According to Acworth, hair is just one of the ways students can bring the inside out, answering the question “Who are you?”

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