Community leaders and law enforcement officials met Wednesday to discuss the recent allegations of discrimination at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School after an eighth-grader received a “uniform infraction” for wearing a hijab to school.
“As soon as I learned about this incident, I knew that our task force had to respond,” Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said at the meeting of her office’s Anti-Hate Anti-Bias Task Force, which was held remotely over Zoom. “Sadly, it’s incidents like this at the charter school several weeks ago that remind us that we need to be constantly vigilant against incidents of bias, hate, and ignorance.”
The Mystic Valley student received the infraction on Aug. 18, the first day of classes at the Malden school, which serves more than 1,600 students in grades K-12 and has faced criticism for its treatment of Black, immigrant, and LGBTQ+ students.
The Muslim family said their eighth-grader came home in tears after receiving the infraction and noted that hijab was misspelled as “jihab” on the form.
School officials later issued a statement saying they regretted how “the recent incident of one of our Muslim students who chose to express her faith by wearing the hijab was mishandled.”
“This experience has shown us that we can and need to adjust our practices,” the statement said.
The school acknowledged that its “handling of the situation came across as insensitive” and said students may “wear religious attire as an expression of their sincerely held beliefs” but must provide “a letter expressing this desire from a member of their clergy.”
School leaders met with members of the Muslim community Aug. 23 and with the school’s board of directors Monday night, when they discussed possibly making it easier for students to seek religious exemptions to the school’s dress code, which prohibits makeup, facial hair, watches, tattoos, and tinted contact lenses.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Malden Mayor Gary Christenson expressed concerns about the school’s policy, and said city officials are “in a holding pattern” to see if the charter school revises it.
“I think in the year 2022, especially in our city, there just shouldn’t be a requirement to have to explain why you’re wearing a hijab,” Christenson said. So far, the school has not shown “a willingness to modify the policy,” he said.
Christenson said the city has tried to show its support for the student and her family. “I reached out to the family again this morning, just to reiterate that we’re here for them and willing to do anything we can to help,” he said.
No one from the school attended the meeting. Administrators referred questions to the school’s lawyer, Howard Cooper.
“There are discussions happening at the Board about the school’s religious accommodation to the dress code policy,” Cooper said in an e-mail to the Globe. “It is always the intention of the school to comply with the law, while considering any expressed concerns from the Mystic Valley community. Unfortunately, the matter has become a legal issue, so the school is not going to comment further.”
School leaders have said a teacher gave the student the discipline form accidentally, instead of an application for a religious exemption to the uniform policy.
The school, which offers a longer school day and an extended academic year, is known for its rigorous academic program. Last year, 89 percent of Mystic Valley 10th graders met or exceeded expectations on the MCAS English exam, compared to 64 percent statewide.
The Middlesex district attorney’s office created the Anti-Hate Anti-Bias Task Force to bring together lawmakers, faith leaders, educators, youth leaders, law enforcement, and community advocates to address incidents of hate and bias.
At the task force meeting, Mohanad Mossalam of the Malden Islamic Center said the school’s decision to cite the student was “hurtful” and “heartbreaking” and that the school needs to change its policy.
“My impression is that the board and the people that are running the school have no understanding of any culture except their own. Well-intentioned or not, this is my impression,” Mossalam said. “They do not understand why the school’s policy regarding the hijab is so harmful.”
Mossalam said the school’s uniform policy should be inclusive enough so that every student “feels that they belong,” he said. “Whether it’s the Muslim community, the Sikh community, the Jewish community, whether it people from different cultures, everyone needs to be involved.”
Lawyers with the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations are representing the Muslim student and her family. On Aug. 20, they said that the situation was under control and the student was wearing her hijab in school.
“We are all justifiably concerned about this young student and want to make sure that she is safe, and that her religious rights are respected and protected,” the group said at the time. On Wednesday, Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, the group’s executive director, said the group had not yet made any “request or demand directed toward the school.”
“We are exploring all possible claims and doing due diligence in devising our legal strategy on behalf of the student,” she said by e-mail.
The school’s dress code has caused controversy before. In 2017, two Black students at Mystic Valley received detention and were banned from attending their prom because they wore braids with extensions, which administrators said violated the school’s dress code.
The disciplinary actions drew harsh criticism and nationwide attention. Attorney General Maura Healey determined that the school’s policy on hairstyles discriminated against students of color and the rule was ultimately dropped. In July, Governor Charlie Baker signed legislation barring discrimination on the basis of a person’s natural hairstyle or hair texture, and the two former students were in attendance when he signed the bill into law.