has changed its policy regarding religious headwear.
A parent’s word is now sufficient to justify a student’s religious reason to wear a head covering, according to a
The policy change came after a meeting earlier this week between the Northwood principal and the father of at Montgomery County Public Schools.
When 17-year-old Caleb Tanenbaum started wearing a large, black, knitted hat to Northwood the last week of January, school administration asked him to remove it. After Caleb’s parents, Steven and Lana Tanenbaum, confirmed that it was a traditional Jewish head covering, the administration then requested a letter of justification from a rabbi.
Steven Tanenbaum saw this as unfair treatment and complained to the MCPS superintendent, as well as to several Jewish and civil rights groups. He asked for a letter of apology to the family and a reform in the policy.
After meeting earlier this week with the principal, Tanenbaum wrote an email to the administration and MCPS officials describing his plans for “a proposal to the Montgomery County Public School Board to form one unified county policy that deals with head coverings, and specific due process to remedy any conflicts. My goal is to ensure that no discrimination, intentionally or unintentionally ever occurs again with regards to this matter.”
In the same email, he also wrote the following: “I feel that Dr. Johnson is a caring man, and has a difficult job to do, and made an honest mistake, which he acknowledges. He should be allowed to continue to concentrate on educating our children, and putting lessons learned into better teaching practices, without having to endure anymore [sic] attacks and unproductive comments.”
The “attacks and unproductive comments” refer to the hate mail and anonymous phone calls that the Northwood principal has received since the incident was made known locally and internationally.
Assistant Principal Linda Wolf, who has worked at Northwood for seven years, called the hate mail “nasty and personal stuff.”
“The sad thing is that nobody wins from this,” she said in an interview with Patch. “The community has started becoming divided. I just feel bad that it’s caused a rift.”
The Northwood student handbook contains instructions about the dress code that are taken right off the county website, Wolf said, but there are no specifics about the disciplinary procedure.
“The policy is vague, honestly,” Wolf said.
The county policy, which can also be found on Northwood's website, begins with the following: “Any school personnel may advise students about inappropriate dress and grooming for school, in accordance with community standards for dress and grooming.”
However, there is no mention of religious headwear, which gives schools a certain amount of freedom in determining specific policies, according to Wolf.
“Each school can interpret it to best suit their student population,” Wolf said.
Wolf said that enforcing the headwear policy is usually not a problem because when told to remove their hat, “99.9 percent of the time, the kids comply.”
“All students are allowed to wear head wear according to their designated religion,” Principal Henry Johnson wrote in a Feb. 1 email to Patch. “Because our students are not allowed to wear hats and other head gear at school, students are asked for verification when their religious headwear is not traditional headwear that we are accustomed to seeing.”
Caleb’s large, black kippah did not resemble the typical smaller kippot worn by other Jewish students, Wolf added.
Both Johnson and Wolf have stated that letters of verification have been asked from other students before, and no one has ever complained of unfair treatment in this arena. And in cases where the administration was already familiar with the headwear, nothing was said, Wolf added.
Other public schools in Montgomery County already have more specific policies in place.
At Blake High School, procedures published on its website indicate that “Exceptions for head coverings worn for medical or religious reasons will be made by school administration on a case-by-case basis.”
The dress code at states that “No head apparel (including hats, scarves, bandanas, or skull caps) will be worn in the school except for religious reasons.”
And at “Wearing hats in school is not allowed except in special circumstances, such as: medical conditions, cultural or religious observations,” according to its website.
MCPS spokesperson Dana Tofig confirmed that principals have “some leeway” in determining these policies. Although at most schools “as a rule, hats are not allowed,” as far as religious headwear goes--”that’s obviously allowed.” What varies from school to school is how the administration determines whether headwear is religious, he said.
At Northwood High School, a student’s parents will now have that authority.
What do you think of the change in policy? Tell us in the comments.