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When hair breaks rules: Some black children are getting in trouble for natural hairstyles

In the past, "African-Americans often conformed through haircuts, wigs and relaxers," one lawyer said. "Now, more of us are choosing not to conform."
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A high school wrestler was forced to cut his hair or forfeit a wrestling match in New Jersey.

A 6-year-old boy in Florida was turned away from a private Christian academy on his first day of school because his hair extended below his ears.

And a New Orleans-area girl was sent home at the start of the school year from a Catholic school for wearing braids.

All three of the children are black. All wore natural, chemical-free hairstyles. All three incidents were caught on video, drawing widespread attention and condemnation.

These are just a few instances of what civil rights advocates say is a growing problem of discrimination against African-Americans — adults at work as well as children at school — due to their hair.

'Choosing not to conform'

Rules on hair at work and school are not new, but more black people are coming up against them now than in the past due to the popularity of leaving hair natural, said Ama Karikari-Yawson, a lawyer and diversity trainer on Long Island, New York.

"In the past, the regulations existed, but African-Americans often conformed through haircuts, wigs and relaxers," Karikari-Yawson said. "Now, more of us are choosing not to conform, and so the conflicts are coming to light."

Natural hair is intimately associated with racial identity for African-Americans, she said.

The natural hair movement, which encourages black people to wear their hair in its normal, coiled, coarse or curly state, started when more people began shunning chemical relaxers and embracing their Afro-textured hair for health and cosmetic reasons.

Recent studies have linked the ingredients in relaxers, which chemically straighten hair, to uterine fibroids, cancer, and other illnesses. Mintel, a market research firm, estimates that retail sales of at-home relaxers declined 22.7 percent from 2016 to 2018.

Natural hairstyles, such as braids and dreadlocks, are also appealing because they can require minimal upkeep, although dreadlocks are often started on short hair and must be regularly maintained.

Moreover, celebrities such as Viola Davis, Lupita Nyong’o, Ava DuVernay, and rising political star Stacey Abrams have sported natural hairstyles, inspiring other black people to wear cornrows or braids, dreadlocks and twists, Karikari-Yawson said.

The right to keep hair natural

The growing prevalence of natural hairstyles among blacks does not always mean growing acceptance.

The New York City Commission on Human Rights recognized a problem of discrimination based on hair or hairstyle with new guidance this week that classifies such restrictions in workplaces, schools and public places as racial discrimination. The guidelines point specifically to the rights of people to maintain their “natural hair, treated or untreated hairstyles such as locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, Afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state.”

Schools around the country, with their widely varying rules on appearance and dress, can sometimes be particularly rigid about hair.

“In recent years, there has been a troubling uptick of stories surrounding children being targeted for natural hair textures and styles prohibited in school dress codes,” said Patricia Okonta, a legal fellow at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

That can cause students to lose out educationally, if they are suspended or forced to transfer to another school because of hair policies, she said.

“Students are having educational opportunities disrupted for simply being themselves,” Okonta said. “For embracing their blackness."

'If that's not bias, I don't know what is'

Clinton Stanley Jr. wore his excitement on the first day of school.

Dressed in navy pants, a button-down shirt and tie — the uniform for his new school — his pride showed in a video of the occasion filmed by his dad in August 2018.

But the excitement turned to hurt when the school, A Book’s Christian Academy in Apopka, Florida, north of Orlando, turned him away, saying his hairstyle — dreadlocks — was not allowed.

"My son just got told he cannot attend this school with his hair," his father, Clinton Stanley Sr., said in the video. "If that's not bias, I don't know what is."

Dreadlocks hang like individual braids and are sectioned, twisted and often in rope-like pieces.

The incident prompted the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the national American Civil Liberties Union and its Florida chapter to file an administrative complaint with the Florida Department of Education.

The complaint argues that because the tiny private school — which has 33 students — receives public funding in the form of state school-choice scholarships for students, its policy on hairstyles violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"The contributions are voluntary from Florida residents," Okonta said of the state scholarship program. "However, the creation, designation, and management of the scholarship program is governed by Florida law, which is cited in the complaint."

The state Education Department responded by opening an inquiry into the incident that is ongoing.

Sue Book, the school’s administrator, told NBC News in a recent phone interview that the academy’s hairstyle rules have been in place since she founded the school in 1971 and that the regulations are similar to those at nearby private schools.

Boys are prohibited from wearing “dreads” and required to keep their hair in a “tapered cut, off the collar and ears,” the school's handbook says.

Book says the policy has nothing to do with racial bias, pointing out that the student body is 95 percent black. She also maintains that because the state scholarships are funded through donations, she can set rules as she sees fit.

"If they’re going to tell me that I have to have standards I don’t want, then I will close tomorrow," Book said. "I like standards and rules. I don’t intend to change the standards at all."

Stanley, the father of the boy who was not allowed to attend the school, said he was unaware of the policy on hair when he enrolled his son through Florida's Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

"It’s not right for a school to take taxpayer dollars while singling out and shaming black natural hair," Stanley said.

Image: Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson wrestling on February 5, 2018 in a match for his school Buena HS.David Gard for NJ Advance Media

'A very visceral video'

A video of Andrew Johnson, a black varsity high school wrestler in New Jersey, having to get his dreadlocks cut right before an after-school match, has been viewed more than 15.3 million times.

The state's Civil Rights Division and its interscholastic athletic association started separate investigations into the incident that occurred in December 2018, when a white referee ruled that Andrew, a student at Buena Regional High School in Atlantic County, either had to cut his dreads or forfeit the match.

The Johnson family's lawyer, Dominic Speziali, told NBC News this week that some good has come from a painful situation.

"One thing that’s so important here in this case is that there was a very visceral video here," Speziali said. "You could see Andrew. You could see what it did to him. You could see his teammates coming up to him."

That forced haircut brought attention to the indignities faced by some children for nothing more than a natural hairstyle, Speziali said. He believes the incident may also have contributed to the new guidelines in New York City against discrimination based on hair.

"I think people are aware now of the improprieties of the event that took place that night," Speziali said.

A disproportionate impact

Faith Fennedy was 11 and in sixth grade when she was asked to leave class at a Catholic school outside of New Orleans in August 2018 because administrators said her braided hair extensions violated school rules. A video that went viral captured her crying as she packed up her belongings.

A day later, the school asked another student, Tyrielle Davis, to leave class for the same reason.

Faith's mother, Montrelle Fennidy, and Tyrielle's mother, Toyonita Parquet, sued the Christ the King Parish School in Terrytown, Louisiana, its principal and the Archdiocese of New Orleans, claiming that the ban on hair extensions unfairly and disproportionately affected black students.

A state judge in August 2018 blocked the school from enforcing its policy forbidding hair extensions, and in September 2018, the mothers dropped their lawsuit, according to court documents.

Some social justice advocates are hopeful that New York City's new guidelines will help to shift the tide and raise awareness of the unfairness of policies banning natural hairstyles.

"Hopefully this will serve as a guidance in Florida and other jurisdictions to protect the rights of those harmed by these practices and ensure that anti-black biases have no place in our society," Okonta said.