OpEd: The Punishment of Deanna and Mya Cook is Much Bigger Than Braids

Image: Woman with braided hair, rear view

Woman with braided hair. Tim Robberts / Getty Images

This week, we celebrate the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education – a decision that set aside the fallacy of ‘separate but equal’.

This decision continues to represent a symbol of the country we can and should become. Unfortunately, we still find examples where students face inequalities in schools. The latest example is twins Deanna and Mya Cook of Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, Massachusetts.

Last week, Deanna and Mya were given detention with the threat of suspension for violating the school’s dress code. The violation? Their hair. The hairstyle? Braids.

The school describes its dress code as a policy to “foster a culture that emphasizes education rather than style, fashion, or materialism.” But, punishing girls for a common and cultural hairstyle is absolutely contrary to that stated goal of ‘a culture that emphasizes education’.

Sadly, this type of disciplinary action is just as common as it is outrageous, as girls of color face many overlapping barriers to succeed in school, the workplace and even in society.

The futility of this policy, and many others like it in schools across our nation, have nothing to do with furthering the education of our youth and quite frankly, seeks to undermine the value and self-confidence of Black girls everywhere.

Deanna, Mya and Black girls everywhere are being ‘educated’ by adults who think they must be something other than themselves in order to learn - a larger and deeper issue that has penetrated our communities for decades.

Image: Mya and Deanna Cook
15-year-old sisters Mya and Deanna Cook attend Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, Massachusetts. The sisters were given detention for violating the school dress code policy which prohibits hair extensions. Aaron and Colleen Cook

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It is well documented that too many girls of color are continually pushed out of school as a result of unfair discipline practices and a lack of support necessary to deal with trauma, harassment, and other negative experiences. National data shows that Black girls are 5.5 times more likely to be suspended from school than white girls, and that rate balloons to 8.5 times in my own state of New Jersey.

Exclusionary student discipline practices and zero-tolerance policies like limiting hair choices, do not improve achievement or student behavior, but instead, obstruct access to education and set students back in their studies. Further, it perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline as higher numbers of students of color being “pushed out” directly correlates with involvement with the criminal justice system.

Beyond the ramifications of these policies and their disparate impact on Black girls, I am concerned about a severe lack of diversity in leadership at Mystic Valley that is ultimately responsible for the creation and execution of these policies.

The National Women’s Law Center was correct in their assertion that, “the school needs some cultural competency training as well, if they truly think the reason girls get braids to convey wealth, and not for ease of maintenance.”

As a co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls, I recently convened over 600 Black girls between the ages of 10-24 for the inaugural ‘&Girls’ conference to hear directly from them about the issues that they face in their schools and communities. What we heard is that Black girls often feel ostracized and marginalized by adults charged with their wellbeing, especially in school.

There are Mystic Valleys in every community nationwide, and Black girls everywhere can relate to the demonization similar to that of Deanna and Mya Cook and their fellow students.

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Schools have a responsibility to promote tolerance, diversity, equity and justice. School administrators must endorse learning by bridging gaps rather than widening chasms that undermine the achievement of a wide swath of promising students.

Image: Members of the Congressional Black Caucus sent this card to Deanna and Mya Cook
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus sent this card to Deanna and Mya Cook. Courtesy of the Cook Family

This issue is much bigger than braids. The very existence of Black children, inclusive of their appearance, is not an inconvenience. All educators and policymakers, and parents alike must consider the broader policy implications of their actions. This is not just about hair, but the role of school discipline in the futures of all young people and young women of color in particular.

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I strongly encourage Mystic Valley Regional Charter School to reconsider this decision relating to Deanna and Mya Cook, and to immediately revise their dangerous and discriminatory policies.

I stand ready to work in my capacity as a Member of Congress, a co-chair of the Caucus on Black Women and Girls and as a Black woman with Mystic River and any other school to ensure that all children have an opportunity to learn in a supportive and thriving environment.

Our children are our future and we all have a role to play.

Bonnie Watson Coleman, a Democrat, represents New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District in the House of Representatives. She is Vice Ranking Member on the House Committee on Homeland Security and a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. When elected in 2014 she was the first ever Black woman elected to Congress from the state of New Jersey. She is a co-founder of the first ever Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls.