On the first day of school, students' emotions are already running high. And seasoned educators know to what to expect: nervousness about new classes and new friends, reluctance to let go of summertime ease and anticipation for the year to come.
There's no need to add disappointment and rejection to the list. But that’s exactly what happened this Monday in Florida when a father brought his 6-year-old son for his first day at a private, Christian school.
A young boy's excitement for the first day of school—he turned up in a dress shirt, tie and full backpack—was quashed when he was denied admission to his classroom because he has dreadlocks.
Part of this disheartening exchange was captured on the father’s cell phone and shared widely on social media, garnering outrage at the school and sympathy for the family. In the video, the father is noticeably upset. His voice shakes at times. The young boy is quiet; he appears stunned.
“He’s ready to go to school, but he can’t,” the father says. He suggests options for his son’s hair, offering to pull it back. Later, the first-grader himself pipes up with a solution: “Can you braid it up into a ponytail?”
“I respect the rules, but it’s not right,” the father tells a school official. But the rules had been written and they were enforced. At the school in question, boys’ hair can’t fall below the ear. Regardless of length, dreadlocks are prohibited.
This first-grade child’s experience, unfortunately, isn’t uncommon. Across the country in private, public and charter schools, students are disciplined and shamed, denied access to education because their appearance doesn’t align with an (often arbitrary) dress code. News reports are littered with accounts of students withdrawing from schools, enduring unjust punishments or being forced to fight for an education that isn’t conditioned upon denying a part of themselves.
It’s worth noting that these dress codes often focus on hairstyles. For many African Americans, hair is more than “just hair.” For some, a hairstyle is tied to spiritual beliefs. For others, it is a symbol of pride stemming from African traditions.
The policing of locs and other traditional black hairstyles begs the question: Are we asking students to shed who they are before stepping foot on our campuses?
Even some of the language we use to talk about black hair is tied to white supremacy. It’s why some people use the word “locs” instead of “dreadlocks.” While the origin of the word is debated, one common story suggests it comes from European settlers in the West Indies, who referred to the locks of hair Indigenous people wore as “dreadful.” Wearing a natural or traditional hairstyle can be powerful—it can mark a student’s refusal to assimilate into a society that marginalizes them. So when school policies specifically target black hairstyles, they send a clear message. And students are left to feel that their natural hair is a distraction or a defect that needs to be fixed.
Thankfully, there was a happy ending to the story in Florida. The boy—and his locs—were welcomed at another school.
But this incident wasn’t isolated. In 2016, a Kentucky high school banned locs, as well as cornrows and twists—other hairstyles worn predominately by African Americans. Last year, a student at an Ohio Catholic school who grew locs to connect with his Caribbean roots was escorted out of his school and never returned because he refused to cut them.
Perhaps what schools need isn’t a dress code but a history lesson that explores how, historically, negative attitudes about black hair—which sometimes produced discriminatory laws—correlate to perceptions about it today. It’s not a thing of the past: A recent federal court ruling allows employers to ban locs in the workplace.
The policing of locs and other traditional black hairstyles begs the question: Are we asking students to shed who they are before stepping foot on our campuses? Is the erasure of cultural roots a prerequisite for an American education?
New school years are new opportunities. As this one begins, take the time to research your school’s policies regulating students’ dress and hairstyles. Get ready to push back against rules that aren’t inclusive for all students. Ignoring unfair policy isn’t enough. Instead of stigmatizing cultural differences, educators should invite open discussions that encourage the celebration of them.
If we want to build a diverse society where all of our students’ voices are valued, we must begin by acknowledging and accepting their identities before they say a word.
Dillard is the staff writer for Teaching Tolerance.