Parents are calling a "hair policy" at a Massachusetts charter school racist after they said black female students are being suspended and disciplined for wearing braided hair extensions.
“I was kind of shocked because for years everyone has been able to wear braids,” said Maya Cook, a sophomore at Mystic Valley Regional Charter in Malden, Massachusetts.
Parents of two students told WFXT that their daughters have been kicked off their sports teams and barred from prom at Mystic Valley Regional Charter as discipline for refusing to take out their braided extensions. Others have been suspended, but the parents said they're not backing down.
Cook said school officials first pulled her aside two weeks ago after she and her sister, Deanna Cook, both African-American, had their hair braided at a local salon.
Their adoptive mother, Colleen Cook, received a call from the school.
“The school basically said that they didn't want anything artificial or unnatural in their hair,” said Colleen Cook.
The school's policy says students cannot have a hairstyle that is distracting to other students, and hair extensions are not allowed. Colleen Cook argued that the policy targets only black students.
“We told them there's nothing wrong with their hair the way it is. Their hair is beautiful, there's no correcting that needs to be done,” said Colleen Cook.
Deanna Cook said hair extensions and braids are integral to African American culture.
"It makes me feel like my culture and my hair was not important enough to be represented around the school," Deanna Cook told WFXT.
The Cook girls refused to take out their braided extensions and were punished with daily detention. Colleen Cook said it became worse last week.
“All the little black children were marched down for a hair inspection, whether they had braids or not, and asked, ‘Are those extensions? Are your braids real or not?’” said Colleen Cook.
In a statement, school officials told WFXT: “Our policies ... foster a culture that emphasizes education rather than style, fashion or materialism. Our policy on hair extensions, which tend to be very expensive, is consistent with ... the educational environment that we believe is so important to our students’ success.”
Colleen Cook said the school’s policy doesn’t send a message of success to her daughters.
“It really affects them to their core and tells them, ‘You're not good enough, you need to change,’” she said.
She has filed a complaint with the NAACP and the anti-defamation league and said that so far, there has been no response from school officials.
Mystic Valley Regional Charter released the following statement from Alexander J. Dan, the school’s interim director:
“The Mystic Valley Regional Charter School serves a diverse student population from surrounding communities that include Everett, Medford and Malden, among other cities. The school consistently ranks among the top schools in Massachusetts in MCAS testing, SAT testing and college admissions. We send students from all walks of life, including those of color and those from limited means, to the best colleges and universities in the nation.
“One important reason for our students’ success is that we purposefully promote equity by focusing on what unites our students and reducing visible gaps between those of different means. Our policies, including those governing student appearance and attire, foster a culture that emphasizes education rather than style, fashion or materialism. Our policy on hair extensions, which tend to be very expensive, is consistent with, and a part of, the educational environment that we believe is so important to our students’ success.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story used the colloquial term “braids” to refer to braided hair extensions. This story has been updated to clarify the wearing of braided extensions.