Screenshot: WESH 2 News

As children returned to school this fall, new teachers and classmates weren’t the only things that greeted some students. More than one story surfaced of children being turned away, or sent home from school, because of culturally-specific hairstyles like braids or dreadlocks. One such child was six-year-old Clinton Stanley, Jr., whose story went viral when he was denied his first day at A Book Christian Academy in Apopka, Fla., because his dreadlocks were deemed non-compliant with the school’s dress code.

A Book Christian Academy is only one of many private evangelical schools in Florida enacting this type of policy. Many of the schools participate in the Hope Scholarship program, Florida’s new school voucher program. (A Book Academy is not part of the voucher program but does benefit from government funding.) While the publicly-funded scholarship program was, ironically, implemented to help students escape bullying in public schools, an investigation by the Huffington Post revealed that as many as 20 percent of the participating schools ban students with natural or braided styles, citing strict policies on appearance.

Rightly concerned about the deeply racist undertones of such policies, on Oct. 2, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund sent a letter (pdf) to the Florida Department of Education, asking them to take action against schools with policies that are either “discriminatory on their face or may lead to discriminatory application against African-American students,” calling them a violation of students’ civil rights.

The letter read, in part:

We write on behalf of LDF to raise deep concerns about these unlawful and discriminatory Hair Policies and the harms they inflict upon African-American children. ... The Hair Policies unlawfully target African-American students on their face based on their specific hair texture. They also expressly ban hairstyles or grooming practices that are more likely to be worn by or associated with African-American children. ...

On their face, these policies are racially discriminatory because they target forms of hair that are predominant among, if not unique to, African Americans. These bans unnecessarily prohibit common hairstyles, grooming practices, and cultural expression of African Americans. In addition to students with “locs,” African-American students who wear their hair in its natural form are substantially more likely than white students to “violate” the ban on an “‘Afro’ over 1 inch in height” by virtue of how African-American hair grows in its natural state. Similarly, African-American students, especially African-American female students, are substantially more likely than white students to “violate” the ban on “hair extensions” because they are more likely to wear braids with hair extensions as a form of hair maintenance and/or cultural expression. No sound pedagogical rationale justifies this disparate treatment of or disparate impact on African-American students. Locs, afros, braided hair, or hair braided with extensions are a form of cultural identity and expression that no school receiving federal funding may prohibit, including private schools.

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According to HuffPost, in addition to banning natural or traditionally African-American hairstyles, many of the schools participating in the Hope Scholarship program also ban LGBTQ+ students and threaten to punish those in same-sex relationships—again, ironic for a program designed to protect students from bullying and discrimination.

Discrimination based on race is illegal in schools and specifically banned by the Florida school voucher program. And yet, as the NAACP LDF points out, hair discrimination is a subtler, yet equally insidious form of racial discrimination.

“The forms of racial discrimination most commonly seen in education have evolved. It is now rare to find a policy that explicitly excludes potential students based on skin color,” said the letter. “However, subtle rules and restrictions based on racial stereotypes and proxies have the same force and effect.”

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The NAACP LDF asked that the Florida Department of Education review policies at the schools in question and requests that any discriminatory mandates be rescinded. The letter also suggests that schools consult with their local communities in revising their hair policies—including incoming and already enrolled African American families—as well as training their staffs to improve their “cultural competence.”

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the nation’s oldest civil rights law organization, founded in 1940 by Thurgood Marshall, asked for a response to its letter within 10 days. As of Wednesday of this week, no official response had been issued; though, due to Hurricane Michael, state offices in Tallahassee were closed Wednesday.

But as Angel Harris, assistant counsel for the Legal Defense Fund and author of the letter, told HuffPost, the issue will not be put to rest.

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“This has always been a priority for us, that African-American children have access not just to quality education but that they are welcomed into those environments,” she said.