The War on Black Girls' Hair in Charter and Private Schools

Hair is an integral part of black cultural expression, but it has little to do with educational development, says John H. Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation. His response, highlighted in recent media reports, was a sharp dressing-down of a charter school in Malden, Mass., that disciplined African American girls who wore braided hair extensions to school.

The case brought heightened attention to the boundaries of policing identity, and it activated our advocacy partners at the local ACLU, NAACP, and Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice to get the school to reconsider its extensions ban, which overwhelmingly affects students of color.

In a letter to the editor of the Boston Globe, which first broke the story, Jackson said the school’s actions are unwise and uninformed.

“These misguided attempts to stamp out culture or overpolice black and brown bodies result in children of color experiencing school in radically different ways than their peers. The paltry excuse put forward by the school’s leadership that hair extensions highlight inequities is ridiculous and is emblematic of irresponsible and uninformed educational leadership. So is the notion that wearing one’s hair the way it grows out of many people’s head is a distraction.”

Because the students at the center of the Malden case have faced exclusionary discipline over hair, Jackson says schools need to reset their priorities back to education.

“Let’s keep our hands out of kids’ hair, especially when the styles are part of the observance of their faith or culture. We should just focus on broadening students’ minds…”

Edgar Villanueva, vice president of programs and advocacy, told the Bay State Banner said that research funded by Schott has identified a persistent trend of black girls being pushed out of schools and that in 2016, black girls were suspended at six times the rate of white girls. Not only do such policies make girls of color lose out on valuable instruction time, but in the aggregate, these policies can be an onramp to the school-to-prison pipeline. The case of the Malden students has an important lesson for other girls of color facing this type of discrimination, says Villanueva.

“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.”

The Malden case, tragically, is just the latest charter or private school of many that in recent years have made the unfortunate misstep of disciplining over black students’ hair. For a trendline, look here, here, here, here and here. Noting this pattern, Jackson issued a clarion call to stop policing black hair. In an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Sentinel, he detailed the worrying trend over braids, dreadlocks, Afro-puffs and twists. And then he summed:

“These practices and policies have no place in our educational institutions.”

Moreover:

“The socio-emotional and school penalties these young women have faced is far too severe… The girls don’t deserve punishment…. It’s time for the assault on black girls to stop.”

In Malden, the Massachusetts attorney general is now investigating.

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