Most schools across the country have a dress code that dictates what is and isn’t appropriate for students to wear to school, and Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, Massachusetts is certainly no exception. But some say the school’s policies cross the line — in fact, the hair and makeup policy has come under particular scrutiny this week, after being called out for discrimination.
It all started when 15-year-old twins Deanna and Mya Cook asked their parents if they could have their hair professionally braided with extensions. As their dad Aaron shares with Babble, his daughters have many friends with braided hair, which is a norm in the African American community, and some are even fellow students at Mystic Valley.
So along with his wife Colleen, Aaron agreed to let the girls get their hair braided. Over their spring break, the sisters visited a local salon where they sat patiently for 12 hours until their hair was completed — and it was well worth the wait.
On April 24, the girls returned to school — the same one they’ve attended since kindergarten — proudly rocking their beautiful new braids. But the very next day, something unsettling happened: Deanna’s history teacher sent her to the nurse’s office, claiming that Deanna’s hair violated school policy.
The nurse ultimately sent Deanna back to class, but things didn’t end there — the teacher told Deanna to return to the nurse’s office once more, and this time, the nurse wrote a dress code violation infraction. The end result? Deanna got one hour in detention. But she was also given a deadline: Deanna was told she had exactly 24 hours to remove her braided extensions or she’d receive an additional detention. Mya faced the same consequences after she was also sent to the nurse’s office for violating the policy.
The school’s 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.” That includes “extra-long hair or hair more than 2 inches in thickness or height.” The handbook also states that hair extensions are not allowed.
The Cooks tell Babble that they met with both the school’s discipline coordinator and the high school principal, in addition to sending a letter to the school board, arguing that the policy was discriminatory. But working up the chain of command has yet to result in change. In each case, Aaron says they were met with the same “song and dance,” and were told that the policy was set in place for the year and is equally applied to all students, regardless of race.
But the Cooks have refused to accept that answer, and their girls have refused to back down. Both Deanna and Mya have not removed their hair extensions or served their detentions, which has resulted in some pretty drastic consequences. Deanna, who recently qualified for her state’s track meet, has been suspended from the team, risking her ability to earn college athletic scholarships. Mya isn’t allowed to attend Junior-Senior prom or softball practice. Both girls were removed from Latin Club.
A quick visit to the school’s website reveals a non-discrimination policy that clearly states:
“State and federal laws prohibit discrimination in education. Mystic Valley Regional Charter School does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, age, sex, gender identity, homelessness, religion, national origin, disability or sexual orientation with regard to admission, access to programs or activities, or employment opportunities.”
Yet aren’t they doing just that? Refusing the Cook girls “access to programs or activities” based on “the basis of race”?
Aaron and Colleen tell Babble that they promise to support their daughters in their decision not to serve their detentions or change their hairstyle. Aaron also reports that the girls’ fellow students and many of their teachers have been encouraging and supportive, and that the girls are continuing to attend class.
As for the public? Aaron says there has been more positive attention and support for their story than negative.
The Cooks’ story has gained quite a bit of national attention in the last week, and yesterday, the ACLU of Massachusetts filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education against Mystic Valley Regional Charter School on May 15, stating:
“Mystic Valley Regional Charter School maintains a Hair/Makeup policy that discriminates based on race, gender, national origin, religion, and disability. 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. This complaint, accordingly, seeks a new policy and an immediate halt to disciplinary actions based on the existing policy.”
As a mom of four black children myself — one of whom wears her hair in braided extensions similar to those of Deanna and Mya — this story has more than troubled me. It’s not really a matter of opinion; the school’s policy clearly discriminates against black children, plain and simple.
Braids and hair extensions are a norm in the black community among women and girls — and it’s not just about “style”; it’s also about function. Braids keep the hair protected, healthy, and well-maintained. But the current rules also ban any hairstyles with “shaved lines or shaved sides,” which is a common hairstyle among black boys. That ban would include a fade haircut, which is how my own son wears his hair, and any hairstyles with line designs in them. Lastly, the rules state that hair may not be more than two inches in height — a policy that applies to students with afros, whose hair doesn’t lay flat or hang down.
The rules clearly target children whose hair, even its most natural state (like an afro), would result in an infraction. And that simply isn’t fair.
So where do the Cooks go from here? Aaron tells Babble that the school’s academics are top-notch, but the cultural competency and inclusivity needs improvement; and they aren’t staying quiet about it. He wants to see diversity awareness training, hiring more teachers of color to better match the student population, and above all, he wants all students treated fairly with respect to who they are. As Aaron shared, the school cannot continue to live in a bubble and it’s high time inclusion be prioritized.
Though Babble reached out to Mystic Valley Regional Charter School, there was no response at the time of publication.