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Dress code at Malden Mystic Valley Regional Charter School censures black hair

Schools nationwide punish black kids for natural and common hair styles

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Dress code at Malden Mystic Valley Regional Charter School censures black hair
Tanisha Sullivan

Outrage erupted as a Malden charter school meted out detentions and, in one case, a suspension to black girls who wore their hair in styles common among Africans and African Americans but forbidden under the school dress code. Among the children disciplined at Mystic Valley Charter school were Lauren Kayondo, age 15, whose family says she was suspended for refusing to remove braids from her hair, as well as Mya and Deanna Cook, 15-year-old sisters who were banned from after-school athletics and served daily detentions for continuing to wear braids with extensions. Civil rights groups have decried the policies as racially discriminatory and said they may represent another piece of an all-too frequent trend of criminalization of blackness.

Racially targeted dress code?

Mystic Valley’s dress code bans “drastic or unnatural hair colors or styles….that could be distracting to other students,” and explicitly calls out hair more than two inches in thickness or height as well as hair extensions. Many see the ban on height and extensions as targeting students of African descent who wear their hair naturally or in traditional styling.

“As a black woman who wears her hair natural and who has over the years worn braids and weaves and had the privilege of being able to have hair that allows me to be versatile in how I express myself and in how I am able to, quite frankly, manage my life, I am personally very concerned about what we’re hearing in Malden,” said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP said in a Banner phone interview. “I wear my hair natural and I have an afro from time to time. It does not impact, and has never impacted, my work and quite frankly has nothing to do with my work or work ethic. The suggestion that hair, particularly hair in its natural state, could somehow disrupt the learning process to me just simply does not make sense.”

Matt Cregor, education project director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, noted that white students with unnaturally dyed hair were not punished, and said the school policy seems blatantly discriminatory.

“The language seems so racially targeted that the thing it reminds me of the most is guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice on what not to do if you don’t want to be a target of a civil rights investigation,” he told the Banner. “It’s hard not to look at a policy like this and feel an explicit targeting within it and punishment for a hair style that can only be seen a distracting through the eyes of one who must have never seen it before.”

In a letter to the school’s interim director, Cregor suggested that the paucity of black educators at Mystic Valley creates a cultural competency gap.

“I understand that you employ one black educator among the 156 educators you listed for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education,” Cregor wrote. “If you endeavor to equitably serve students of color, you may wish to spend more time in the neighborhoods they live in, where braids are not distractions; they are hair.”

In his letter, Cregor said the policy can impede students’ ability to explore their racial identities, and noted that the Cook sisters are black children of white adoptive parents.

Alex Dan, the Mystic Valley school’s interim director, stated in a May 12 letter to parents that the dress code is intended to limit children’s ability to differentiate based on economic status and said the cost of hair extensions is the reason for their prohibition.

“One important reason for your children’s success is that Mystic Valley purposefully promotes equity by focusing on what unites our students and by reducing visible gaps between those of different means. We foster a culture that emphasizes education rather than style, fashion, or materialism,” Dan states. “The specific prohibition on hair extensions, which are expensive and could serve as a differentiating factor between students from dissimilar socioeconomic backgrounds, is consistent with our desire to create such an educational environment, one that celebrates all that our students have in common and minimizes material differences and distractions.”

A random sampling of hair salons in Boston and Malden performed by The Boston Globe found hair extensions woven into braids cost less or are roughly equal to other hair styles, with prices ranging from $50 to $200 and the styling from one session lasting for up to three months.

Zane Crute, president of the Mystic Valley area branch of the NAACP, called the school’s disciplinary practices an impediment to education.

“It’s more focused on trying to disrupt education,” Crute told the Banner. He added that the dress code policy is one example of schools barring behaviors that are acceptable in a professional environment. “Academia gets away with a lot of stuff that doesn’t go in the business world anymore.”

The Cook sisters who have become a focus of media stories on the policy, have strong academic records: Mya Cook has a 3.79 grade point average, and Deanna hold a 3.3 GPA.

Criminalization of black girls

Research has demonstrated that suspensions not only impede access to education but also can make it more likely a child will become involved with the criminal justice system.

According to the Cambridge-based Schott Foundation for Public Education, in 2016, black girls were suspended at six times the rate of white girls. The Lawyers’ Committee’s Cregor said black girls also are suspended at a rate higher than that of boys of any race other than African American. This inequity persists in other systems: black girls disproportionately enter the juvenile justice system, where they also receive longer sentences than any other demographic of girls, according to a Feb. 2015 report from the African American Policy Forum.

While Sullivan and Crute could not recall similar incidents in Massachusetts, across the country black girls and boys have faced severe discipline for their hair. In 2013, 7-year-old, straight-A student Tiana Parker was prohibited from wearing dreadlocks to her Tulsa, Oklahoma charter school. Although backlash compelled the school to change its policy, which also barred afros, the family transferred schools, saying they felt she was unwelcome.

That same year, 12-year-old African-American student Vanessa VanDyke faced expulsion from a Christian school in Orlando, Florida for wearing her hair naturally. When her mother complained, students teased VanDyke for not having straight hair, the school administration said the hair, which the VanDyke self-described as “puffy,” was a distraction, on par with rattails and Mohawks.

In 2014, a Rastafarian boy cut his dreadlocks after his school in Louisiana threatened to suspend him. In 2015, school administrators in a Belmont, California Catholic School sought to remove 5-year-old Jalyn Broussard from school for wearing a hair style known as a modern fade, in which his hair was longer on top and buzzed on the sides. According to Broussard’s mother, several students of different races who wore similar hairstyles faced no discipline, and she said she showed the school principal photos of the Michael Strahan, a black talk-show host and former New York Giants defensive end, wearing a modern fade. The Broussard family removed their children from the school saying they no longer trusted the school not to discriminate.

Edgar Villanueva, vice president of programs and advocacy at the Schott Foundation, said that research funded by the foundation has identified a persistent trend of black girls being pushed out of schools, and that a variety of issues need to be addressed.

Girls are more likely to be subjected to sexual harassment, burdened with family supports, and be penalized for defending themselves against bullying, Villanueva said, generating a greater need to ensure female students feel safe in schools and to offer supports for girls facing family responsibilities. The foundation recommends restorative justice in place of zero tolerance measures.

The situation in Mystic Valley has an inspiring note, Villanueva said, in that it represents an instance in which youth and parents are standing up for their rights.

“Folks who experience this type of discrimination are often in a less powerful position to push back,” he said. “This is one reason we’re really excited about this incident where youth and parents are pushing back, saying this is our culture and this is inappropriate. It will inspire others to do so.”

Latest developments

The Mystic Valley NAACP is collaborating on a joint complaint with the ACLU and has sought conversation with interim director of the school. Speaking on Monday, Crute said that thus far, the school administration seems unwilling to talk or make policy changes. That same day, the ACLU filed a complaint with the state department of education, stating that the dress code “advances a standard of appearance that is based on Caucasian, Christian, and Western norms. Likewise, the policy makes no exceptions for ethnic, religious or cultural practices or medical needs.”

The Massachusetts Charter Public School Association has disavowed Mystic Valley’s actions. On May 12 the association issued a statement calling Mystic Valley’s dress code policy discriminatory, counter to diversity, and in opposition to students seeking to express their cultural heritages.

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