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Schools say dress codes promote discipline, but many black students see traces of racism

Schools say dress codes promote discipline, but many black students see traces of racism

 


Since schools have controlled hairstyles as part of their dress codes, some students view these rules as an attempt to deny their cultural and religious identity.

Nowhere have school rules on hair been a bigger flashpoint than in Texas, where a trial is set to take place this week to determine whether high school administrators can continue to punish a black teenager for refusing to cut your hair. The 18-year-old student, Darryl George, who wears his hair tied in a bun on his head, has been kept away from his class since the start of the school year.

For school administrators, strict dress codes can be tools to promote uniformity and discipline. But advocates say the codes disproportionately affect students of color and that punishments disrupt learning. Under pressure, many Texas schools have removed boys-only hair length rules, while hundreds of districts maintain hair restrictions written into their dress codes.

Schools that enforce strict dress codes have higher rates of sanctions that prevent students from learning, such as suspensions and expulsions, according to an October 2022 report from the Government Accountability Office. The report calls on the U.S. Department of Education to provide resources to help schools design more equitable dress codes.

In public schools' strict dress codes, some see vestiges of racist efforts to control the appearance of black people dating back to slavery. In the 1700s, South Carolina's Negro Act prohibited black people from dressing above their station. Long after the abolition of slavery, black Americans were still stigmatized for failing to adopt beauty habits consistent with white European beauty standards and standards.

WATCH: The effort to ban hairstyle discrimination nationwide

Braids and other hairstyles have cultural significance for many African Americans. According to historians, they served as a means of communication across African societies, particularly to identify tribal affiliation or marital status, and as clues to safety and freedom for those who were captured and enslaved. But many Black Americans felt pressure to straighten their curly hair or keep it short.

Whether in professional workplaces, social clubs, or schools, research has shown that such standards of beauty and grooming have inflicted physical, psychological, and economic harm on Black people and other people of color.

Dress codes are based on regulations that go back decades, which is why they are often complex, said Courtney Mauldin, a professor at Syracuse University's School of Education.

The schools were not designed for black children, she said. Our educational forefathers were all white men who set the tone for what schools would be…and what the goals of schooling one of those conforming are. This is one of the key ideas that was introduced in the 1800s.

In some cases, students and advocates were able to resist.

In 2017, Deanna and Mya Cook, then 15-year-old black twins, were punished for wearing box braids with extensions at their charter school in Malden, Massachusetts. The sisters were told their hair did not conform to the school's dress code. The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts filed a lawsuit, and the state attorney general said the school's policies against extensions and other hairstyles appeared to violate racial discrimination laws.

You don't expect to get in trouble for your hair, said Mya Cook, now 22 and a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. But we see it happening. Administrators may retaliate against students and use this as a form of control and oppression. And since there are no policies in place, they can get away with it. »

WATCH: How Hair Discrimination Affects Black Americans in Their Personal Lives and Workplaces

Schools with higher percentages of black and Hispanic students are more likely to enforce strict dress codes, and schools in the South are twice as likely to enforce strict dress codes as those in the Northeast, according to the GAO report. In the subregion including Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana, 71 percent of public schools have strict dress codes, the highest in the nation, according to the report.

School districts have argued that strict dress codes improve academic performance, encourage discipline and good hygiene, and help limit distractions.

At Barbers Hill High School in Mont Belvieu, Texas, where Darryl George is a freshman, Superintendent Greg Poole compared the district's grooming policies to military practices. In a full-page ad in the Houston Chronicle last month, Poole said service members “realize that being American requires conforming to the positive benefits of unity and being part of something more bigger than yourself.

George has been serving an in-school suspension or in an off-site disciplinary program since the end of August. His family was denied a religious exemption and argued that their places had cultural significance.

The Georges family also filed a formal complaint with the Texas Education Agency and a federal civil rights lawsuit against Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, as well as the school district. The lawsuits allege the state and district failed to enforce the CROWN Act, which prohibits race-based hair discrimination and took effect in Texas in September.

Asking students to change the way they wear their hair for the sake of uniformity is an indicator of racism, said U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a New Jersey Democrat who championed the CROWN Act.

Facing this unnecessary discrimination, which has nothing to do with your ability to learn, has nothing to do with your ability to sit in a classroom, has nothing to do with your ability to succeed academically , is a mistake, she said.

In 2020, the same high school told a Black student he had to cut his dreadlocks to return to school or participate in graduation. In recent years, several other Texas high schools have told black students that their hair violates dress code policies. The ACLU has sued in a few cases, including against the Magnolia Independent School District, which ultimately ended up removing hair restrictions from the dress code.

In 2020, the ACLU of Texas identified 477 school districts with boys-only hair length rules. Since then, half haveremoved restrictionsof their policies, according to an ACLU report. He advocates for more equitable dress codes, noting that black students are more likely to face disciplinary action.

Hair length rules that apply to boys in Texas schools also unfairly target transgender and nonbinary students, said Chloe Kempf, an attorney with the ACLU of Texas.

The trial will be held Thursday in state court in Anahuac, Texas, to decide whether George High School is violating the CROWN Act by imposing clothing restrictions limiting the length of boys' hair. The move is expected to set a precedent in a state where several districts have similar policies.

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