As white parents of five black children, Deanna and Aaron Cook have taught their family to grow thick skin. They’ve endured odd looks at the grocery store in Malden, Mass., and ignored strange comments from Walmart greeters.
But nothing, Aaron Cook told The Washington Post, quite prepared them for the month-long battle they’ve been fighting with the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School over their daughters’ hair.
On April 14, twins Deanna and Mya Cook, 15, told their parents they wanted to have their hair professionally braided. The girls had always braided it themselves or had it chemically straightened, but as teens they were learning more about black culture and wanted to try something new.
Soon after, they went to school with long, braided hair.
The next day, the girls were called to the office for a “uniform infraction.”
Hair extensions are prohibited in the public charter school’s student handbook, alongside nail polish, makeup and dyed hair because it is “distracting.” An administrator told Deanna and Mya that their new braids — which combine artificial hair with their own hair — violated that rule.
The girls were instructed to remove their braids and they refused. The policy, they argued, was discriminatory against African American students and unevenly enforced.
With each day since, punishments from the school have escalated, Aaron Cook said, so much so that he and his wife eventually sought guidance from the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Civil Liberties Union. Deanna, a runner who qualified for the state finals, has been kicked off the school track team. Mya was removed from the softball team and told she couldn’t attend the prom.
Last week, the fourth in turmoil, ended with the girls on the local news and sharp statements of support from the state association of charter schools, the ADL and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.
“Denying young black women their opportunity to express their cultural identity will not make the school safer, more orderly, or less ‘distracting,’” the committee said in a statement. “It will diminish your students, and diminish your ranks. Doing this to high school students at a time when they are learning about self-expression and self-advocacy is particularly troubling.”
In response, the school’s interim director, Alexander Dan, sent a letter to all Mystic Valley parents defending the policy. The charter school, the letter said, “promotes equity” with dress code policies that reduce “visible gaps between those of different means.”
“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,” Dan wrote. “Any suggestion that it is based on anything else is simply wrong.”
Cook declined to disclose how much the family paid for the professional braiding, but said the actual bag of artificial hair was only $5. According to an analysis by the Boston Globe, hair extensions woven into braids in the greater Boston area can cost between $50 and $200 and last up to three months. That price, Cook told The Post, is no more expensive than the chemical straightening Deanna and Mya had previously done and on par with the price of other hairstyles.
Frustrated students at the school Friday told the Boston Globe that they had experienced racial ignorance at the school, which is located about 10 miles north of Boston.
The student body is fairly diverse, which is part of the reason the Cooks chose it years ago for their five adopted children. Of the 1,500 students there in grades K-12, 43 percent are people of color and within that, 17 percent are black, according to numbers from U.S. News and World Report.
But just one of the 170 teachers and staffers at Mystic Valley is black, reported the Boston Globe, and Cook said there are no African Americans on the school’s board of trustees.
“That has to change,” he told The Post.
Cook added: “The school needs some serious diversity training.”
Other young women of color have worn their hair in braided extensions before, but the Cooks claim there was a crackdown on students after spring break of this year.
Another mother at the school, Annette Namuddu, told the Globe that her daughter was assigned a detention for wearing braids to school. When she refused to remove them, the detention turned into a suspension.
“It’s discrimination,” Namuddu said. “I see white kids with colored hair and you are not supposed to color your hair, and they walk around like it’s nothing.”
Another mother, Kathy Granderson, told the Globe her daughter was among about 20 girls who were called to the office and asked if they wore “fake” hair. Half were assigned detentions.
The Cook sisters served detention time but then quit going. Now, the punishments for their insubordination are piling up. On Friday, they were sent home with another letter saying they each had to serve six hours of detention to make up for the sessions they missed.
Aaron Cook said he and his wife sent a formal letter to the board of trustees two weeks ago asking for a solution and have yet to get a response. If it were up to him, Cook said, he would pull his kids from the school. But the twins have attended Mystic Valley since kindergarten and want to graduate alongside their friends.
So now, the goal is to change the policy and hold the school accountable, he said.
“In effect, this issue is now bigger than my daughters,” Cook said. “At the end of this, we want a better school for our children.”
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