A Malden charter school that drew a rebuke from the state attorney general for punishing black and biracial students who wore hairstyles the school said violated its dress code has quietly done away with the controversial rules in its new student handbook.
The handbook sent to parents Friday from Mystic Valley Regional Charter School no longer bans hair extensions, hair that is more than 2 inches in thickness or height, or shaved sides — rules Attorney General Maura Healey in May deemed discriminatory against people of color and unevenly enforced.
Black female students who wore extensions braided into their hair said they had been subjected to detentions and suspensions while other students who colored their hair — also prohibited under the old rules — were not singled out for punishment nearly as often.
The new rules do away with the ban on hair coloring, too.
Aaron and Colleen Cook, whose twin 16-year-old daughters, Deanna and Mya, attend Mystic Valley and served multiple detentions for wearing hair extensions, said they are pleased the school backed down for the sake of all students. But they said serious concerns remain.
“The school made a tactical decision to deal with a component of the policy that was blatantly discriminatory, and this was a Band-Aid,” said Aaron Cook. “There are larger issues that still need to be dealt with related to hiring teachers of various backgrounds, races, and religions, and the school needs cultural sensitivity training.”
State data for the 2016-17 school year show that while nearly half of Mystic Valley’s 1,500 students are people of color, the school’s teaching and administrative staffs are overwhelmingly white, with just one black person, six of Hispanic origin, and three of Asian origin.
School administrators did not return calls seeking comment. But in the past, they defended the rules saying that hair extensions and the other formerly banned styles were “distracting” to other students and that extensions in particular were expensive. They said the policy aimed to reduce “visible gaps between those of different means.”
In May, shortly after Mystic Valley’s hair policy erupted in controversy, the school’s trustees voted to suspend the rules and work with the attorney general’s office on a new dress code.
On Friday, Healey’s office said in a statement that the school and its trustees “have made positive steps toward addressing the community’s concerns, and our office is appreciative of the revisions made to its hair/makeup policy.”
Healey’s office continues to work with the school to reach a resolution on other concerns that have been raised but declined to elaborate.
Meanwhile, a coalition of legal groups that represents the Cook family is pressing ahead. The coalition sent a letter to Mystic Valley administrators July 25 suggesting they should commit their staff to “improving the school community’s diversity and cultural competence through training and professional development.”
The letter asked that all staff and faculty receive training specifically about the new dress code to ensure it is enforced “fairly, equitably, and non-discriminatorily.”
The lawyers also are asking that the school expunge records of all students, including the Cook twins, who received detentions, suspensions, and other punishments related to the hair policy.
‘There are larger issues that still need to be dealt with.’
“Students should not face any consequences, academic or otherwise, for allegedly violating an unlawful policy to which they never should have been subjected,” said the letter, which was signed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, and the Boston law firm Latham & Watkins.
The letter noted that several students have “encountered a hostile school climate from [Mystic Valley] staff and students as a result of challenging the unlawful policy.” It noted that retaliation is illegal under federal and state law. And it suggested that Mystic Valley’s administrators ensure that “no student is retaliated against by issuing a notice against retaliation to its staff,” and issuing a notice to the school community that “no retaliatory actions will be taken against any students or parents who spoke out against or otherwise challenged the [hair] policy.”
Three months ago, the lawyers filed a public records request with school administrators seeking documents to determine whether students of color were disproportionately targeted for punishment for alleged violations of the dress code. The lawyers said they are still waiting for those documents.
“We hope this resolves itself as expeditiously and as thoroughly as possible, so that all children can start the school year without any fear of their education being disrupted by these polices,” said Matt Cregor, education project director with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.
The new school year begins at Mystic Valley in less than two weeks.