Hats on for Health: A Skin-Cancer Warning from Down Under

By Henry, Sarah | The Saturday Evening Post, July/August 1996 | Go to article overview
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Hats on for Health: A Skin-Cancer Warning from Down Under


Henry, Sarah, The Saturday Evening Post


An Australian mother in California is campaigning to protect her children and others from the ravages of the sun.

When Wendy Lennon moved from Bendigo, Australia, to the Northern California city of San Jose 21/2 years ago, she never imagined she'd become embroiled in controversy. But in January of 1995, after challenging the local school district's "no hats" policy, Lennon, a vivacious, 40-year-old mother of three, inadvertently found herself at the center of a debate that pits her skin-cancerprevention stand against a school district policy based on safety, not health concerns. Hats are banned in San Jose schools because teachers and administrators say they cause discipline problems and that some schoolchildren wear caps to signal gang affiliation.

This cross-cultural conundrum surfaced soon after the Lennons arrived in the United States in 1993. The family had ventured there because Wendy's husband, Glen, is American. At Wendy's urging, they rented their home in Victoria and relocated to California so that their children-Tai, 15; Tobias (Toby), 12; and Jacqueline, 7-would have an opportunity to learn more about their father's roots.

"We came in September for the beginning of the school year," explains Lennon from the family's two-story home in a leafy, well-to-do, suburban enclave of the sun-drenched Silicon Valley.

"We packed the kids' lunches for them-with their hats-and sent them off to school," says Lennon, describing a routine familiar to Australian parents. That's when the hat battle began. "The kids were told to take their hats off and never to bring them again, basically," she says. "That's how we found out that there was this `no hats' policy."

Lennon thought it was just an oversight. Like most Australian parents, she is well versed in the precautionary measures necessary to protect her children from the sun; wearing a hat to and from school and on the playground was simply a matter of form. It was not, she discovered, in the San Jose Unified School District. After talking with her younger children's principal at Graystone Elementary School, she learned why the district bans hats.

In Lennon's mind, the prohibition is absurd. "How much impact is taking a hat away going to have on these gangs?" she asks. "Aren't they going to have a bracelet or a bandanna or another signal? I have to say I have become more sympathetic to the reasons behind their banning hats.... But truly, is that gang element so allpervasive that you have to risk your child's not being educated in preventative health? There doesn't seem to be a great deal of logic or common sense here."

Lennon says there's an easy way to keep gang members from co-opting a school cap. "I've suggested that they get a school hat. I still can't see how a gang member would run around with a school hat with Graystone Elementary written on it." She rolls her eyes at the thought. "I'm not asking for it to be mandatory. I'm just saying people should be given the option."

Anxious for her youngsters to assimilate, Lennon initially dropped the issue. It wasn't until an extended visit home at Christmas, when Lennon's youngest children returned briefly to their old, hat-wearing school, that Lennon decided she should pursue the matter. While in Australia, Lennon says she was encouraged to try to change the policy after discussing it with the Australian headmaster, who was about to recommend that hats become compulsory there.

She was struck by the comparison. "It's mainstream at home," she says. "There are the little ditties like: `No hats, no play, protect yourself from the UV ray.' Little kids understand the concept of UV rays. It's educationinexpensive education, too-little ditties and a hat and some sunscreen." Upon returning to California early this year, Lennon set out to gather statistics on skin cancer in the United States. She learned that malignant melanoma-the most serious of skin cancers-is the fastest-growing cancer in the country.

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