ACLU: Punishing Black Girls For Wearing Hair Extensions Is Racially Discriminatory (Updated)

A Massachusetts school's policy that prohibits "distracting" styles has been used to punish Black students for their braids. Students of color were reportedly singled out for hair inspections—though white students with similar styles weren't grilled.

Twin sisters Deanna and Mya Scott, 15-year-old students at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Massachusetts, have been banned from participating in school events, including their prom. CBS Boston / YouTube

Update, May 22, 6:03 p.m.: The office of Attorney General Maura Healey sent a letter to Mystic Valley directing the school to “immediately stop punishing black and biracial students for wearing hairstyles the school said violate its dress code,” according to the Boston Globe. The letter noted that the school’s policy goes against state and federal law “by subjecting students of color, especially black students, to differential treatment and thus denying them the same advantages and privileges of public education afforded to other students.”

Twin sisters Deanna and Mya Scott, 15-year-old students at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Massachusetts, have been banned from participating in school events, including their prom.

Their offense? Wearing braids with hair extensions. And, well, being Black.

According to a complaint filed by the ACLU of Massachusetts with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Mystic Valley’s hair and makeup policy discriminates on the basis of race because it bans hairstyles commonly worn by Black students. The policy implicitly requires Black students to spend money that they may not have or want to spend in order to style their hair to comport with white norms about hair and appearance.

The ACLU claims that the hair policy violates federal civil rights law; the Massachusetts Equal Rights Amendment, which prohibits sex and race discrimination; and the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, which prohibits interference with rights ensured by the state’s constitution by means of threats, intimidation, and coercion.

“Mystic Valley’s Hair policy purports to ban ‘drastic or unnatural hair colors or styles’ and a ‘hairstyle that could be distracting to other students,’” according to the complaint.

“But in many respects, it defines those prohibited hairstyles not according to their tendency to distract, but instead according to whether they match certain other norms. For example, it bans ‘extra-long hair,’ ‘hair more than 2 inch in thickness or height,’ ‘coloring, dying [sic], lightening,’ ‘hair extensions,’ and all ‘[f]acial hair.’”

The policy, which requires students of all ethnic backgrounds to adhere to Eurocentric beauty standards, has been especially harmful to students of color, the ACLU charges.

Banning hair that is more than 2 inches in thickness or height, for example, disproportionately affects Black students, whose hair is coarser and less likely to lie flat than white students’ hair. The ban also discriminates against Rastafarian, Sikh, Muslim, and Jewish students who may wear head coverings—considered “distracting”—or have long hair in keeping with their ethnic or religious culture.

Not only were the Scott sisters disciplined and threatened with suspension for having hair extensions in their braids, but a Muslim student celebrating the Eid holiday was allegedly instructed to remove henna designs from her hands, even though such henna coloring is part of the religious observance, according to the complaint. But the school ignored white students with dyed hair.

Even more egregiously, school staff have allegedly touched and inspected the hair of students of color while white students with long hair have not been examined even though some also have hair extensions, according to the complaint.

Deanna and Mya’s adoptive mother, Colleen Cook—who is white—said that school administrators “marched Black and biracial children down the hall” to inspect their hair. Administrators asked Black students whether their braids had any “fake hair,” but did not similarly grill white students.

As a result of the hair code, the Scott sisters “have been removed from participating in after school sports, banned from their school prom, and given numerous detentions.”

And, because the Scott sisters refused to accept detentions—because they believe the hair policy is discriminatory—the school imposed even more punishment. Deanna Scott, specifically, has been banned from important track events that are crucial to her development and potential for obtaining college scholarships.

“I’m angry, I feel like my children are beautiful, they’re Black, they should be proud of themselves,” said Colleen Cook, who, along with her husband Aaron, adopted the 15-year-old twins and three of their siblings.

“The policy specifically discriminates against African-American children as it relates to hair extensions,” said Aaron Cook to CBS Boston. Aaron is also white.

“You typically do not see Caucasian children with hair extensions. The fact that it’s in the handbook does not make it a nondiscriminatory policy,” Aaron Cook added.

The Cooks and parents of other students of color tried to discuss the issue with school officials, but the school insisted that they would continue to enforce the policy and that the girls would continue to face punishment if they did not remove the extensions from their braids.

But for the Scott sisters, wearing hair extensions in their braids is an expression of their culture.

“I was really excited to be celebrating my culture because I have white parents and it’s very important to participate in the culture,” Mya told CBS Boston.

“What they’re saying is we can’t wear extensions, and the people who wear extensions are Black people,” Deanna pointed out. “They wear them as braids to protect their hair and they’re not allowing us to do that,” she added.

The school’s explanation for its policy betrays the same racial myopia as the policy itself.

The policy is intended to “foster a culture that emphasizes education, rather than style, fashion or materialism,” according to school officials.

“The specific prohibition of 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 an educational environment, one that celebrates all that students have in common and minimizes material differences and distractions,” the school’s interim director, Alexander Dan, said in a statement, according to CBS News.

But any serious examination of this claim belies its absurdity. Not all Black hair extensions are expensive. A package of fake hair can cost as little as $5. I obviously don’t know whether or not Colleen braids her daughter’s hair or takes them to a hair braiding salon, but it certainly is not a given that hair braiding is an expensive venture. Black women often do one another’s hair for free. (And my mother, who is white, learned how to style my hair. It cost nothing at all.)

And if the school expects girls like the Scotts to adhere to white hair norms, spending hundreds of dollars on straightening relaxers—which can irreparably damage Black girl’s hair—is far more expensive than spending ten bucks on a couple packages of hair. Once my mother permitted me to get a relaxer, I had to save nearly 100 dollars for a trip to the salon.

Besides, one can only imagine how much money white students are spending on highlights, hair color, and weaves. And yet, according to the complaint, only students of color are harassed for their hair choices.

As I recently wrote, these sorts of hair policies are discriminatory and stem from white people’s ignorance when it comes to Black people’s hair. These policies ignore that Black women’s hair is naturally kinky and coarse and therefore cannot fit Eurocentric beauty standards—long, straight locks—without harsh chemicals, scorching heat, weaves, or wigs.

And the notion that the school has decided that Black girls shouldn’t be spending money on fake hair has a distinct air of paternalism to it—as if school officials need to make sure that Black girls aren’t spending their money frivolously while ignoring white students’ beauty practices and spending. This policing of how people of color or poor people spend their money borders on a national obsession in this country. Politicians, for example, criticize poor people who have cell phones as irresponsible or “not really poor”, and they restrict the ways in which folks on public assistance spend their money.

Matthew Cregor, education project director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, agrees that the policy may violate federal anti-discrimination law. He wrote a letter to Mystic Valley’s interim director protesting the policy, according to CBS Boston.

“The U.S. departments of justice and education recently released guidance for school districts on the nondiscriminatory administration of school discipline,” Cregor wrote.

“This civil rights guidance is directly relevant to your school’s discriminatory treatment of the Cook twins for three reasons: First, the parents in today’s article expressed concern that white students who dye their hair are not facing the same consequences as black students with braids or extensions. This is especially troubling as your policy does not even discuss suspending students for hair/makeup violations, something that the article suggests has happened.

“Second, unlike the jewelry and nail polish prohibited in your code, braids and extensions are worn primarily by African-American and Afro-Caribbean students, raising concerns of discriminatory treatment. Third, it is hard to understand how braiding, a deep-rooted cultural practice of people of African descent, can be put in the same category as the ‘drastic and unnatural hair colors’ your code prohibits as ‘distracting,’” Cregor continued.

He also suggested that the school’s hiring policies are discriminatory since only one of the school’s 156 employees is Black.

And that’s the rub: A school run almost exclusively by white people is unlikely to understand the unique quality of Black students’ hair or understand why describing traditional Black hairstyles as radical is, at a minimum, racially insensitive. Many white people are so used to seeing Black women sporting straight hair that they think Black natural hairstyles are radical or distracting.

This sends a message to Black girls that there is something wrong with their hair. But, in reality, there’s something wrong with a school that would subject Black girls to uncomfortable searches and paternalistic advice about how they should style their hair or how much cash they should spend on it.