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ACLU of Massachusetts challenges Malden charter school’s discriminatory hair policy

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLU of MA), and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice (LCCR) have been retained by the family of Mya and Deanna Cook, two 15-year-old Black Boston-area students who have been repeatedly punished by their school, the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School (MVRCS), for wearing their hair in braids with extensions. LDF, as lead counsel, and its co-counsel are exploring legal action on behalf of the Cook family against MVRCS for its racially discriminatory “Hair/Make-Up” policy.

Deanna and Mya Cook with mother Colleen Cook

Deanna and Mya Cook with mother Colleen Cook

Since the issue became public, there has been an outpouring of support for the Cook family and significant public pressure against the school from students, parents, community groups, our organizations, the Massachusetts Charter School Association and the Massachusetts Attorney General, who had told the school in a letter that its rules were discriminatory and in violation of both state and federal laws. On May 21, 2017, the school’s trustees lifted the no-extensions ban through the end of the school year and are permitting Deanna, Mya, and other students who received similar penalties to resume all extracurricular activities.

However, the board passed up the opportunity to rescind the policy altogether, and the school has continued to defend the policy in a letter to parents. Furthermore, the school made no indication of how it would deal with past punishments handed out under the policy, including whether students’ records would continue to reflect infractions of the rule. The policy should be permanently rescinded, and the school should take steps to ensure that no student is harmed in the future because of punishments received under this misguided rule.

“This policy is ignorant at best and intentionally discriminatory at worst,” said LDF Associate Director-Counsel Janai Nelson. “Banning hair extensions clearly discriminates against Black girls, resulting in harsh and humiliating punishment simply for how they look. We are proud to represent Deanna and Mya – as well as their parents, Aaron and Colleen Cook – and we are exploring what legal actions we might take to ensure that Black students at MVRCS can participate fully in the life of their school without being singled out for groundless and demeaning punishment and having their educational experience disrupted because of their race.”

Over two dozen Black women posed for a photo during a rally in support of the Cook sisters.

Approximately 100 people showed up to protest the hair policy before the school’s trustee meeting on May 21, 2017. Photo by Carl Williams.

“The school’s purported justification of the hair extension policy – to avoid the distraction of socioeconomic difference – shows a lack of cultural competency and appreciation of Black culture,” said Rahsaan Hall, Racial Justice Program Director at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Despite their temporary suspension of the policy we still have concerns about the environment within the institution. The ACLU of Massachusetts has received several complaints from families about how the school treats students of color.”

“With at most one Black educator on a staff of 160, it becomes easier to see how this insulting policy was adopted in the first place,” said Matt Cregor, Education Project Director at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice. “There are deeper concerns than just hair here.”

After Mya and Deanna Cook, both students at MVRCS, wore their hair in braids with extensions to school in late April, they were informed by school administrators that their hair violated the school’s “Hair/Make-Up” policy and ordered to remove their extensions. When the Cook sisters refused to do so, the school imposed multiple hours of detention, and threatened to suspend them. Additionally, both girls were barred from all extra-curricular activities, including Deanna’s participating on the MVRCS track team and Mya’s participation on the MVRCS softball team. Mya was also banned from attending the school’s upcoming prom.

Deanna Cook waits for the school’s trustees to discuss the hair policy on May 21, 2017. Photo by Carl Williams.

After significant public pressure from a coalition of students, parents, and local groups in coordination with LDF, the ACLU, and the LCCR, the school’s trustees lifted the no-extensions ban through the end of the school year and are permitting Deanna, Mya, and other students who received similar penalties to resume all extracurricular activities.

“Although this is an encouraging step, it is not enough,” Nelson added. “The school’s ban on braids with hair extensions, as well as its policy on the maximum thickness and height of a student’s hair must be permanently eliminated in order to ensure that MVRCS’s Black students receive equal treatment. Additionally, all disciplinary actions related to the discriminatory policy must be rescinded and completely removed from the records of all affected students, among other remedies.”

In addition, LDF, ACLU of MA, and LCCR sent a letter to the school signed by over 30 civil rights organizations that condemns the policy and demands that MVRCS permanently rescind it.

 

Additional documents:

Photo of Mya Cook

Mya Cook. Photo by Carl Williams.

Letter signed by over 30 civil rights organizations opposing the school’s policy
Letter from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office
Letter from Congresswoman Katherine Clark
ACLU of Massachusetts press release
ACLU of Massachusetts complaint to Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

 

Media coverage:

 

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