When student coifs become a big, hairy deal

by Jessica Goldstein

On Board Online • October 9, 2017

By Jessica Goldstein
Deputy Director of Policy Services

Over the last several years, you may have seen some well-publicized incidents in which 10 schools - public, charter and private - have subjected students to school discipline because of their hairstyles. Questions of discrimination have arisen because the styles involved are those favored by some African-American girls - Afros, box braids, natural texture, dreadlocks, twists and hair extensions.

According to news reports, charter schools and private schools have found these hair styles to violate dress codes by being "distracting," "faddish," "extreme," "untidy" or "uncontrolled."

There have been similar reports from public schools:

NYSSBA has gotten no reports of concern about students' hairstyles in a public school in New York State. But if one arose, it would have to be looked at in light of the school district's dress code. NYSSBA's sample dress code language (part of the student Code of Conduct) states: "A student's dress, grooming and appearance, including hair style/color, jewelry, make-up, and nails, shall . be safe, appropriate and not disrupt or interfere with the educational process."

When dress code controversies arise, the reason may be that a school policy is flawed, but more often the problem is that a sensible school policy is applied in an unfair or discriminatory way, according to Kimberly Norwood, a law professor at Washington University.

Norwood is part of a letter-writing campaign in which more than 100 law professors are trying to raise awareness about the reasons black girls may prefer hairstyles that some might view as "distracting" or "uncontrolled."

A girl's decision to wear her hair in braids or an Afro "is not simply aesthetic in nature, but it is also deeply connected to her identity as African descendant and her desire to keep her hair in its natural form," Norwood and her colleagues wrote to a Florida charter school.

"When school administrators instruct African descendant girls to cease wearing their hair freely and as it naturally grows, they are implicitly requiring them to change the very structure and texture of their natural hair," the letter stated. "Such a request is tantamount to asking an African-American to lighten her skin color so as to appear white or to obtain rhinoplasty to narrow her nose so that her nose does not appear to be as stereotypically African."

While many African-American girls and women use chemicals to straighten their hair, Norwood says that this can be painful, time-consuming and expensive, as well as potentially harmful to the scalp and hair. Use of hair-straightening chemicals has also been linked to increased risk for uterine fibroids.

Disciplining African-American students for wearing their hair in a natural or ethnically authentic manner sends an unwelcoming - if not discriminatory - message, according to Norwood and her colleagues. They say their goal is for school officials to have an "authentic dialogue about the diverse experiences of African descendant children" and create policies that reflect "commitment to racial and gender equity and inclusion."

What's this mean for your school board? File it under cultural awareness. Knowing more about hair styles could be relevant to your board's expectation that staff treat all students fairly and without discrimination, as required under federal and state law. That includes New York's Dignity for All Students Act and associated board policies.

As Norwood and her colleagues suggest, some dialogue may be in order. Ask your superintendent if he or she has heard any concerns about students' hairstyles, particular African-American students' hairstyles.

It probably doesn't need to be a board agenda item. Students may feel more uncomfortable if they - or their hair - are the center of adult discussion.

On the other hand, keep an eye on your district's disciplinary data. If any students have been disciplined for dress or hairstyles, ask questions. Are rules being applied in a non-discriminatory way?

One bright line for intervention and possibly discipline involves anything that actually disrupts - rather than causes a temporary distraction to - the educational process. But even if there is actual disruption by a hairstyle, sometimes the issue can be resolved without resorting to punitive action.

For instance, suppose a student has a very large Afro, and students sitting behind him or her actually cannot see the front of the classroom. One could view such a hairstyle as disruptive to the educational process and use the threat of discipline to persuade the student to modify the hairstyle. But wouldn't a change in seating assignments be another way to solve the problem?

If you are a member of your board's policy committee, you probably don't need to sharpen your pencil to articulate the board's view on hairstyles. If your dress code is based on the NYSSBA sample, there should be no need to modify your district's code of conduct to include language addressing specific hairstyles.

Generally, your district's dress code should be written in a way that allows administrators to exercise judgment to address more than just the hairstyle or fashion issue du jour. A well-written dress code should allow administrators to handle issues related to student dress and appearance in a way that facilitates learning for everyone.

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