The Battle Over a Teen's Pink Mohawk

A Michigan high school student says he’s been forced to leave his track team simply because of his hair. Mike Barker, a 17-year-old junior at West Iron County High School, recently styled his hair into a bright pink Mohawk to support his mother, who is battling breast cancer.  When authorities allegedly told him to choose between his hair, which violated school policy, and the team, Barker says, “I picked family."

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Barker shares his story at length in a YouTube video shot by Michigan blogger Jason Asselin. In it, he explains that he explains that he decided last week to fulfill his promise to his mom to dye his Mohawk — which he’s allegedly had for weeks without consequence — to honor not only his mom’s cancer struggle, but also the struggles of two aunts, one of whom died two years ago. The student says that when various school officials, including his track coach, told him on Thursday that he needed to shave it off or leave the team, he chose the latter.

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Since then, Barker’s story has blown up on social media, prompting a Facebook support page with almost 2,300 in his corner. He tells Yahoo Shine he’s meeting with school officials on Monday afternoon to discuss the situation further. Meanwhile, Superintendent Chris Thomson has provided Yahoo Shine with the following statement:

“The West Iron County Public Schools supports the needs of the students to express themselves, as long as their expression does not interfere with the educational process ... The athletic department is going to work with the student and parents to resolve this issue. The student was not dismissed from the team and we welcome his participation in the future. The athletic department has long supported breast cancer awareness by participating in numerous events involving student athletes and staff held in October (Breast Cancer Awareness Month) and plan to continue to support this worthy cause.”

According to the school’s website, Barker was highlighted as “Student of the Week” earlier this year. His short bio notes that he also plays football and basketball, and that that he is a “conscientious student” who “willingly helps peers and staff and always treats others with respect” and is “an exceptional member of the West Iron County High School student body.”

Barker’s story comes less than a week after that of Kamryn Renfro, a Colorado 9-year-old who was kicked out of school for a day after shaving her head in support of her best friend, a cancer patient who is bald from chemotherapy treatments. The school relented after mounting pressure from the public, voting on Tuesday to waive the school dress-code policy, which it said Renfro’s baldness had violated. Other recent student-hair controversies have included that of Vanessa VanDyke, 12, who was told by her Florida private school to restyle her natural African American hair or be expelled; and a 7-year-old Oklahoma girl whose parents yanked her from her charter school after officials deemed her dreadlocks unacceptable.

Although Barker has not been suspended, he says that leaving his track team has not been easy. “I don’t want to quit. I actually wanted to keep playing,” he explains in the YouTube video, during which he’s flanked by his mother, Wendy Pawlicki, and an unnamed man, identified by Barker for Yahoo Shine as his stepfather. “I was supporting something big, cancer. You know, it goes on every day.”

In addition to his Facebook defenders — many of whom have sent in photos of themselves either wearing pink or with their hair dyed pink to support his effort — Barker has received the backing of his fellow students and track team members, some of whom quit the team along with him.

“I played football for 4 years with Mike. We have been pretty good friends. But for me it never mattered,” one of those students, senior Bryson Heimerl, tells Yahoo Shine in a Facebook message. “If a team member was attacked I had his back. I felt that Mike was being attacked at this point. I had no intentions for anyone getting hurt. I just wanted to prove a point.”

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