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Black Malden charter students punished for braided hair extensions

The Cook sisters at Fenway Park. Handout

Black students at a Malden charter school who wear their hair in braids are facing detention and suspension by administrators who say the hairstyles violate the school’s dress code. Parents describe the crackdown as racist.

Colleen Cook, whose twin 15-year-old daughters, Deanna and Mya, attend the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School, said Thursday evening that her children have served multiple detentions since last week and could be suspended.

“They teach them at a very high academic level and I appreciate that, and that’s why they go to the school,” Cook said. “But, unfortunately, they don’t have any sensitivity to diversity at all.”


Two other mothers said their black or biracial children had been subjected to discipline or questioning over their hairstyles — braids with extensions — which the parents describe as important expressions of culture.

The school issued a statement defending its actions, saying that Mystic Valley Charter serves a diverse population and that many students go on to attend top colleges and universities.

Deanna Cook, 15, mother Colleen Cook, Mya Cook, 15.

“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,” the statement said.

“Our policies, including those governing student appearance and attire, foster a culture that emphasizes education rather than style, fashion, or materialism,” the statement said. “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.”

School officials were not available for interviews Thursday evening, a spokesman said.

Cook said the school’s policy against braids that include hair extensions — additional hair that is woven in — disproportionately affects black children. Cook and her husband adopted five black children — all siblings — and four have attended Mystic Valley since kindergarten, she said.


Cook said her two daughters who are facing discipline for their hairstyles are good students: Mya is in the National Honor Society, with a 3.79 grade point average, while Deanna has a 3.3 grade point average.

More than 40 percent of students in the school are people of color, including 17 percent who are black, according to the latest annual ranking from U.S. News & World Report.

The school’s student handbook states that hair extensions are prohibited, as are hair coloring, makeup, nail polish, and tattoos.

Cook said she understands a policy that bans nail polish and hair color, rules that would affect children equally. But she said the policy against hair extensions seems aimed at black children.

Braided hair, Cook said, “gives them pride. They want to partake in their culture.”

Cook said her daughters had worn braids before and never encountered objections from the school. Administrators suddenly cracked down in late April, after students returned from spring break, she said.

“They marched black and biracial children down the hall” to inspect their hair, she said.

Cook said her daughters, who declined to remove their braids, have been forced to serve detention an hour before school starts each day, and nearly an hour afterward. They also have been kicked out of after-school sports and banned from the prom, she said. The actions have been particularly hard on Deanna, a runner on the school’s track team.

Cook said she has called two civil rights groups — the NAACP and the state’s Anti-Defamation League — seeking help. The Anti-Defamation League, a nonprofit organization that fights anti-Semitism and other expressions of hate, has set up a meeting with school administrators on Friday, Cook said. Officials with the Anti-Defamation League could not be reached Thursday evening.


The punishment for some other girls of color at the school has been even more severe.

Annette Namuddu said she received a call from school administrators last week saying her 15-year-old daughter, Lauren Kayondo, initially would have to serve detention. When her daughter refused to remove the braids this week, the detention became a suspension, the mother said.

“It’s discrimination,” Namuddu said. “I see white kids with colored hair and you are not supposed to color your hair, and they walk around like it’s nothing.”

“I don’t get it,” Namuddu said.

Namuddu said her daughter has been coming home from school and crying, saying she feels the school is picking on black children.

“My daughter is a good student. Never gets in trouble,” Namuddu said. “Lauren was having difficulty in mathematics, but they should be helping her out instead of putting her in detention.”

Kathy Granderson said her 14-year-old daughter, Jaden, a freshman at the school, was one of about 20 girls taken down to administrators’ offices last week and asked whether their braids contained any “fake” hair. Granderson said about half of the girls ended up getting detentions, but her daughter, who is biracial, did not.

“This is not right, and you have to take a stand for your children,” she said. “I don’t want my daughter and son [to] think they aren’t good enough.”


Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.