Black Students Punished for Wearing Braided Extensions

Two black students at a Massachusetts charter school have been punished for wearing braided hair extensions. Parents and civil rights lawyers say the school's hair and makeup code disproportionately affects students of color.

Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, Massachusetts, has a dress code that is designed to equalize students by forbidding expensive hairstyles and clothes that could create socioeconomic class barriers.

The trouble is, the code seems to have been applied selectively in the case of two black students, who were given detentions and may be suspended, for wearing braided hair extensions.

Twin sisters Deanna and Mya Cook were banned from participating in track and the school’s Latin club, and they are not allowed to attend any school events due to the hair code violations. And they’re not the only African American students who were affected by the ban.

“What they’re saying is we can’t wear extensions, and the people who wear extensions are black people. They wear them as braids to protect their hair and they’re not allowing us to do that,” said Deanna.

“It’s discrimination,” said the mother of one of the other students who was disciplined for having braids and extensions. “I see white kids with colored hair and you are not supposed to color your hair, and they walk around like it’s nothing.”

Matthew Cregor, project director at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, wrote a letter to the school stating that its policy may violate federal anti-discrimination laws.

“First, the parents…expressed concern that white students who dye their hair are not facing the same consequences as black students with braids or extensions. This is especially troubling as your policy does not even discuss suspending students for hair/makeup violations,” Cregor wrote. “Second, unlike the jewelry and nail polish prohibited in your code, braids and extensions are worn primarily by African-American and Afro-Caribbean students, raising concerns of discriminatory treatment. Third, it is hard to understand how braiding, a deep-rooted cultural practice of people of African descent, can be put in the same category as the ‘drastic and unnatural hair colors’ your code prohibits as ‘distracting.’”

The school’s interim director, Alexander Dan, says the policy is not discriminatory. “The specific prohibition of hair extensions, which are expensive and could serve as a differentiating factor between students form dissimilar socioeconomic backgrounds, is consistent with our desire to create an educational environment, one that celebrates all that students have in common and minimizes material differences and distractions,” he said.

The Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has gotten involved in the case, too. It filed a complaint with Massachusetts’ Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, alleging that the students’ punishment is part of a discriminatory policy.

School administrators say the ban on hair extensions is designed to “foster a culture that emphasizes education rather than style, fashion, or materialism.”

Aaron Cook, Deanna and Mya’s father, issued a statement about the ban. “We feel that this issue is not about materialism over substance. It clearly targets a minority of the population, disproportionately impacting children of color. The policy needs to change.”

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