School disciplines cancer survivor for wearing hat: West Burlington district apologizes after incident becomes public

Chloe Terpenning, 15, pictured Dec. 10, lost her hair last spring shortly after starting chemotherapy for stage II Hodgkin lymphoma. The West Burlington High School freshman hopes a petition will help change district policy to allow her and future students with cancer to trade in their wigs for caps. (John Lovretta/Burlington Hawk Eye)
Chloe Terpenning, 15, pictured Dec. 10, lost her hair last spring shortly after starting chemotherapy for stage II Hodgkin lymphoma. The West Burlington High School freshman hopes a petition will help change district policy to allow her and future students with cancer to trade in their wigs for caps. (John Lovretta/Burlington Hawk Eye)

Chloe Terpenning’s hair used to fall past her hips, but it began to fall out shortly after she began chemotherapy for stage II Hodgkin lymphoma in March.

Now with the disease in remission, the West Burlington High School freshman hopes to encourage the school to change its policy to allow head gear like hats for students with cancer.

Chloe, 15, this month started a petition to change the school’s dress code after having spent several days in the office for wearing a gray, knit beanie made especially for cancer patients.

As of a week ago, Chloe had obtained 222 signatures on a printed petition and another 103 signatures through an online petition.

The school’s policy states that these are considered inappropriate to be worn in school: “Hats, caps, hoods, sunglasses, hairnets, head scarves, headbands (other than those worn by females to hold back hair) and other headgear.”

When asked about exceptions to the policy, Superintendent David Schmitt said the district will leave it open-ended so each student can be considered on a case-by-case basis, and that Chloe can wear a hat if she feels more comfortable doing so.

That was not the case earlier, however, when wearing the knitted beanie she didn’t make it far past the school doors before Principal Bruce Snodgrass stopped her and sent her to the office, where she had to remain the rest of the day.

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“In the office, it is a very small room and I don’t get any lessons in there. I just get the assignments and am expected to have them done the next day. And the door’s wide open,” she said. “So anyone who walks by can see me sitting in there.”

But she continued to wear the hat and spend each day in the office for the rest of the week.

She was told she could wear only a bandanna or kerchief until Christmas break, but that when she returned she could wear either a wig or nothing atop her head, “or else I have to sit in the office again until I’m ready,” Chloe said.

“And they compared it to a bad haircut,” her mother, Candice Osslund, added.

It wasn’t the first time Chloe and school administrators butted heads.

On Nov. 30, she came to school without her usual wig, her natural hair instead peeking out from beneath a hood on her sweatshirt.

She did the same thing the next day, but was sent to the office by her math teacher.

Chloe said Principal Snodgrass told her she either needed to remove the hood or go home because it was against school policy — despite having obtained permission to wear some kind of head gear at the beginning of the year after a conversation she and her mother had with Associate Principal Mike Jones.

So Chloe called her stepfather, Brian Owens, to come pick her up.

Chloe and her mother said the two administrators have told the girl she needed to take baby steps and set goals in acclimating to life with short hair. The mother and daughter also said Jones and Snodgrass seemed to be trying to set those goals for Chloe.

Osslund wants them instead to do what they can to make her daughter comfortable while she gets an education — which means letting her go to class wearing what makes her comfortable.

The move away from wigs was a big step for Chloe, who open enrolled to West Burlington after she endured bullying by would-be classmates elsewhere last summer.

“I was constantly harassed, threatened and bullied because of my hair,” she said.

Still self-conscious about her appearance, Chloe opted to wear wigs for much of the first semester at West Burlington. But the wigs interfered with some gym class activities and caused her to suffer headaches. It wasn’t long before she realized the wigs also were hindering her hair growth, and even causing it to fall out in some places.

The experience has been frustrating for Chloe and her family.

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“I get where the school’s coming from. They’ve got policy in place, but there’s got to be a gray area in there,” Osslund said. “Of course, I think she looks gorgeous with her natural hair, but for a 15-year-old girl who had hair down to her butt ...”

Last Tuesday, the district apologized.

“West Burlington Independent School District apologizes to Chloe for our insensitive approach to dealing with her hair loss,” Superintendent Schmitt said in a statement. “It was an error of judgment on our part and we regret making this mistake. The school district has taken action to make sure this doesn’t happen again. We hope Chloe will accept our apology and be able to move forward.”

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