SOMEWHERE WEST of the Pecos, in Imperial, Texas, there is a high school student waiting for an answer from the U.S. Department of Education. Several months ago, this student--his or her name has not been revealed--filed a claim with the department charging that the local school district discriminated against him/her "on the basis of sex . . . in the application of any rules of appearance" in violation of Section 106.31(b)(5) of the Title IX sex discrimination regulations adopted by HEW in 1974. Rather than act on the complaint, the department sent the local superintendent a letter saying it was about to repeal the regulation. But in the meantime, the federal government in all its majesty and power is charged, at least technically, with ruling on the validity of a requirement that students dress "in a manner not distracting to others."
As it happens, this is the only complaint filed this year. A decade ago, the nation's high schools were seething with disputes over clothes and hair styles: did the First Amendment or some right to personal authenticity require that students be allowed to wear cut-off blue jeans or muttonchop whiskers? Today, the intensity of these disputes is difficult to recall.
Three Cabinet secretaries have favored repeal of the measure. In 1976, HEW Secretary David Mathews asked, "Is there any way we can get out of that hair business?" A year later HEW Secretary Joseph Califano asked, "What the hell are we involved in a subject like this for?" Last year Education Secretary Terrel Bell said it was "plain silly" for the government to be involved in dress-code and hair- length disputes and said he would kill the regulation. All made the sensible point that their civil rights office had more important work to do. Each might have added that these are exactly the sort of quarrels that should be handled by local communities, in accordance with the time-honored rules of warfare between adult and adolescent.
Yet good old Section 106.31(b)(5) still stands, and the episode tells us many things. One is that it is harder to repeal a regulation--even one that has very little constituency left--than it is to issue the regulation in the first place: so be careful. Another is that we should hesitate before using the blunt and clumsy instrument of the federal government to regulate people's personal lives and what they continue to regard as their local institutions. A few years ago the people in charge of these regulations must have seen themselves as defenders of brave youths defying outmoded traditions; now the people in charge of writing some regulations may see themselves as promoters of chastity and traditional morality. Such regulations, whether they are simply ineffective, as is usually the case, or actually succeed in interfering in people's lives, only make government look foolish and petty. Their persistence diminishes the respect the government can command for regulations on matters of fitting stature and importance.