Last year, West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey had a serious bullying problem. One of the poorest-ranked schools in the state, West Side’s student body is largely well below the poverty level. Many students are homeless, and the school’s principal, Akbar Cook, noticed an intense series of bullying incidents involving students being mocked for wearing dirty clothes.
“I’ve seen a few kids in the back of the class talk about one of the people in front of the class and how they smelled and how their clothes looked dirty,” one student told TV station WCBS in an interview. Others put up photos of their less fortunate classmates on social media to spread and mock.
“These are kids, good kids who want to learn, that are missing three to five days a month because they were being bullied because they were dirty,” said Cook.
Trying to alleviate the issue, Cook changed the school uniform to darker colors so they hid stains, but the problem persisted. Even among the students who could trust in a roof over their heads, laundry facilities were often an expense that couldn’t be afforded.
In 2016, Cook applied for a utilities grant from PSE&G, a major utilities company in the city. It took time, but he was granted $20,000 to help his students. He used the grant to build a laundromat.
Opening this September, West Side has a clean little room with five washers, five dryers, and a large stock of donated detergent. It’s open after school all week, and the room is supervised. Students who haven’t learned how to care for their clothes at home can get advice and retake their dignity in self-care.
“We are trying to teach them to navigate their pride,” Cook told CNN. “My kids are fighters—they just need good ways to fight for themselves, and then take pride in what they can do.”
Helping students with limited access to basic facilities should be a responsibility of all schools. Schools around the country in the last few years have opened laundromats, showers, thrift shops, and food pantries, all with the goal of making sure poverty is not an obstacle to education.