By Sarah Campbell
The Rowan-Salisbury School System released a statement Tuesday condemning a teacher assistant's decision to cut the hair of a Millbridge Elementary School student with Down syndrome.
"School employees, while responsible for the well-being of students at school, must not make decisions for students in place of their parents," district spokeswoman Rita Foil wrote in an email to the Post.
Monica Becker, a teacher assistant and bus driver at the school, cut 7-year-old Jesslynn Poole's hair Sept. 21.
Jessica Stirewalt, Jesslynn's mother, told the Post Becker snipped about 8 inches from her daughter's long brown locks.
"Teachers and other school employees often are called upon to help students in ways that go beyond just classroom instruction," Foil wrote. "You will find many cases where teachers and other staff help students obtain school supplies, clean clothes, and other essentials.
"However, a decision to cut a student's hair, regardless of how well intentioned, clearly belongs to the student's family and parents."
Foil said Millbridge Principal Christopher Smith had school staff contact Stirewalt immediately following the haircutting incident.
"The principal was preparing to call the parent himself shortly afterward when the parent called him first," she said. "The principal apologized and confirmed that school staff should not have cut a student's hair without permission."
• • •There are conflicting stories about why the hair was chopped. Stirewalt said Becker told her over the phone it was because Jesslynn had gotten food matted in it.
But Stirewalt said a letter that Becker sent home said she had trimmed the hair because Jesslynn kept taking it down.
Jay Boulter, a licensed family and family therapist and licensed professional counselor based in Salisbury, said regardless of the reason, cutting a child's hair without parental consent is crossing the line.
"Whether it was matted hair or an attempt to somehow change behavior, it's just inappropriate," he said.
Boulter said for a child with a developmental disability, such an incident could make them anxious or frightened to come to school.
"Based on what I've read in the (Post) story and what I've heard from other people, her hair is very significant to her," he said. "To do that in a school setting can create a very traumatic situation for her that she might associate with school."
Without knowing the whole story, Boulter said he is simply speculating. He's a former special education teacher who currently acts as an advocate for special needs children by accompanying parents to school meetings.
Norma Honeycutt, executive director of Partners in Learning Child Development Center, said she's seen children get everything from drool to food stuck in their hair, but breaking out the scissors is not an option.
"Our teachers would have brushed her hair, cleaned it up, and talked to the mother about pulling it back," she said. "We would never cut a child's hair. I just don't understand that.
"It is about collaborating with the family to solve the issue, not taking it upon yourself."
• • •Becker has been mum about the incident, but her husband said Tuesday the haircut was not a malicious act.
"The public doesn't know the child was constantly coming to school with her hair in a dirty, knotted mess," Eric Becker said. "The parents are spending so much time going to the TV news, going to the paper, putting it on the Internet, yet they can't wash their child's hair."
Eric Becker said his wife was trying to help Jesslynn, but it backfired.
"It's been portrayed that this little girl was a victim from Monica's doing, but it's not that way," he said. "... Monica did what she thought was right to get the knots out of the child's hair."
• • •Rockwell resident Karen Boger said she feels like the haircutting incident wouldn't have occurred in a typical classroom setting.
"That makes it discrimination and that is wrong," she said. "As parents and guardians we need to trust that our loved ones are being taken care of and unfortunately this mother and little girl no longer have that."
Boger is the legal guardian of her 43-year-old brother who has Down syndrome.
"In my opinion the mother should have been called to pick her up from school if it was that bad," she said. "In no situation should her hair have been cut without the mother's permission."
A Rowan County resident who asked to remain anonymous due to a child custody issue, said a similar situation occurred when her granddaughter was a student at Hanford-Dole Elementary, but it was handled differently.
"She used to have really long hair and her mother would French braid it every morning, but as she got older she started to take it down," she said. "The teacher very wisely told her mother that her hair was becoming a problem and was taking away from her ability to learn, so her mother put her hair in a braid and cut it herself to donate to Locks of Love. Her hair hasn't been a problem since then."
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.