What’s more important: upholding a school dress code, or a student feeling comfortable and confident while she battles cancer?
A Texas high school student battling brain cancer for the second time was told by school administrators that she couldn’t wear a two-toned wig to school because it violated local dress codes. The decision was only overturned after the student wrote an impassioned letter and attracted the attention of the media and the Lieutenant Governor.
According to Dallas News, 17-year-old Katilyn Pepper started the new school year wearing a blue-and-black wig after her hair began falling out the week before due to her cancer treatments.
After her principal and the district’s superintendent denied granting her an exemption, the teen and her mom, Tyliece Pepper, prepared to go before the McKinney ISD school board, while Katilyn wrote a letter explaining her case and asking for permission to wear the wig.
“It honestly sucks for me because I’m not able to express myself through the way I wear my hair as I once did (straight, curly, braided, etc.). Yet a wig is the exception, when my mother and I started looking for a wig I honestly thought that none of them looked good on me, and I would just look ugly until my hair grew back,” she wrote in her letter.
“This wig makes me feel normal, confident and otherwise pretty during a time in my life where I have so many things I can’t control, I thought this was the one thing I could, so when my new and old house principals Mr. Ortiz and Mrs. Wood told me that I couldn’t wear this wig anymore all of the wind was let out of my sails.
“I know there are rules and there are always exceptions, I’m asking for the sake of my sanity please allow this to be one. I’m empowered by wearing this wig although it’s subtle in color it gives me an abundance of strength and power to grieve the loss of my hair, and gives me the fortitude I need to fight this battle I’m facing with cancer.”
The girl’s letter and the story of her wig soon hit the media, which quickly led to the attention of Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who asked on Twitter to give Pepper permission to wear the wig — which she was granted. He added in a second tweet, “Let’s keep Kate in our prayers.”
I support clear rules for students but I am asking McKinney ISD to create an exception to their dress code and allow Kate Pepper to wear her beautiful wig. I will send a formal communication to the district tomorrow. #txlegehttps://t.co/nD4OspZ7nc
— Dan Patrick (@DanPatrick) August 26, 2018
I am very glad to hear McKinney ISD has made an exception for Kate so she can wear her turquoise wig during treatment. Let’s keep Kate in our prayers. #txlege
— Dan Patrick (@DanPatrick) August 27, 2018
“Everyone is just overwhelmed with happiness that she can wear the wig,” Pepper’s mother told Scary Mommy. “We haven’t had any response from the school or district to say sorry, but we’re happy that she can wear the wig, and she feels so happy and confident.”
Tyliece said that while the pair were aware of the rule about hair color, the turquoise wig was the only one that made her daughter feel better about her hair loss.
“We went to a few places without finding anything that looks good or feels right, and finally we find this wig,” she said. “This is the first wig that she tried on and said, ‘I’m feeling myself,’ and I said, ‘I’m sold.’ That’s how to wig came into play.”
When Pepper came home and told her mom that the principal said she could no longer wear the wig to school, Tyliece was flabbergasted. When the superintendent emailed to say he, too, was upholding the dress code, she was even more upset.
“I thought to myself, do you understand she has brain cancer, not a head cold? This is the least of our worries,” she said.
Katilyn has been chronicling her battle with cancer on YouTube, including the loss of her hair and her feelings about it.
This is far from the first time that school districts have come under fire for upholding dress codes that are often sexist, racist, body-shaming in nature, or harmful for those with health concerns or disabilities. A recent report by the National Women’s Law Center found that black female students are more harshly punished than other students for dress code violations — and that they’re often suspended from school for these violations, missing vital time in the classroom.
“I think that this dress code in particular is antiquated,” said Pepper’s mother. “School should be a place where you can express yourself and be yourself, especially if you aren’t hurting anyone.”
As for how things stand now? Pepper’s mother says that her daughter is happy to keep the wig, but that she’s been feeling quite sick from the chemotherapy she began this week.
“She’s feeling yucky from her new treatments, but she’s a fighter. And I’m so happy that my daughter fought about this issue. She fought and stood her ground.”