The ACLU of Massachusetts has filed a complaint against what it calls a “discriminatory hair and makeup policy” after two students at Malden’s Mystic Valley Regional Charter School could face suspension for wearing their hair in braids with extensions.
The students, Colleen Cook’s twin 15-year-old daughters, have received multiple detentions for wearing their hair in braids.
Braids with extensions is a hairstyle banned by the charter’s dress code, as well as unnatural hair colors, makeup and nail polish. Hair extensions – not braids – are banned, according to the school’s handbook.
“The policy discriminates on race, gender, national origin, religion and disability,” the ACLU said in a statement. “Our complaint seeks a new policy and an immediate halt to disciplinary actions based on the existing policy.”
However, the school says its policy is to emphasize education rather than fashion.
“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,” Interim School Director Alexander J. Dan said in a statement released last week. “Any suggestion that it is based on anything else is simply wrong.”
The ACLU filed a complaint Monday with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on behalf of sophomores Deanna and Mya Cook, and also “on behalf of all other female students of color.”
“The Hair policy in particular, while not specifically mentioning these prohibited classifications, 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 complaint reads.
Dan did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.
The handbook states that “students may not wear drastic or unnatural hair colors or styles such as shaved lines or shaved sides or have a hairstyle that could be distracting to other students (extra-long hair or hair more than 2 inch in thickness or height is not allowed). This means no coloring, dying, lightening (sun-in) or streaking of any sort. Hair extensions are not allowed.”
The ACLU says the school’s policy affects students with thicker or coarser hair, especially African-American students.
“It also affects Rastafarian, Sikh, Muslim, and Jewish students who may wear head coverings or have long hair,” the complaint reads. “It affects students who, for religious or medical reasons, may wear a beard. All of these students may have neat appearances that are ethnically, religiously, and culturally appropriate and not disruptive of the educational mission of the school.”
The complaint notes that the Cook sisters have been stopped from participating in after-school sports and have been banned from prom in addition to receiving numerous detentions.
“Deanna has been especially harmed by being prevented from taking part in important track events that are a crucial part of her skill development and advancement in athletics, all of which relates to college scholarships,” the complaint says. “On information and belief, other students of color have also been disciplined and threatened and are fearful of retaliation if they challenge this policy.”
The girls’ parents have tried to work out the issue with school officials but have been told their daughters will be punished if they continue to wear their hair in braids, according to the complaint.
The complaint requests that the school agree “to end punishment of all students for wearing extensions in their braids, removal of all records of discipline relating to this policy, an apology to the students, and changing the hair policy to require only an appearance that does not pose health, safety, or cleanliness risks as set force in G.L. c.71, section 83.”
After the controversy started making headlines earlier this month, the school said it promoted equity “by focusing on what unites our students and reducing visible gaps between those of different means.”
“Our policies, including those governing student appearance and attire, foster a culture that emphasizes education rather than style, fashion, or materialism,” the school said in a statement. “Our policy on hair extensions, which tend to be very expensive, is consistent with, and a part of, the educational environment that we believe is so important to our students’ success.”