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    ACLU files complaint over Malden school’s policy on braids

    Mystic Valley Regional Charter School has said that some students’ hair styles violates the school's dress code.
    Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
    Mystic Valley Regional Charter School has said that some students’ hair styles violates the school's dress code.

    The American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint with the state education department Monday against a Malden charter school that has disciplined black and biracial students who wear hairstyles that violate the school’s dress code. Separately, state officials expressed concern about the rule, pledging to meet with school administrators.

    The hair policy at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School is discriminatory and “appears to be especially harmful to female students of color and it has been enforced in a disparate manner against them,” according to the complaint filed by the ACLU with the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

    A number of students who wear hair extensions woven into their braids recently were placed on detention or suspension because the school’s dress code prohibits extensions, listing them as one example of a hairstyle that could be “distracting to other students.” Their parents decried the crackdown as racist.

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    A Mystic Valley spokesman said the school had no comment on the ACLU filing.

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    The school’s hair policy does not specifically mention race, gender, national origin, religion, or disability. Instead, the policy “advances a standard of appearance that is based on Caucasian, Christian, and Western norms,” and makes no exceptions for ethnic, religious, or cultural practices, according to the ACLU.

    The complaint asks the state to ensure a new policy is created and calls for an “immediate halt to disciplinary actions based on the existing policy.”

    Jacqueline Reis, spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the agency had not yet received the ACLU complaint, but is concerned about Mystic’s policy. “We did not know about the hair extension policy at Mystic Valley until we read about it in the media,” Reis said. “We do intend to meet with the school to talk about that.”

    The agency is in the process of scheduling that meeting, she said.

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    The ACLU is among several civil rights groups that have criticized Mystic for its hairstyle rules. Sarah Wunsch, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Massachusetts, said the groups will probably join forces if the school does not change course, and further legal action is needed. “This issue has led us all to the fore and led us to do something quickly because kids are suffering right now,” Wunsch said.

    The complaint was filed on behalf of Deanna and Mya Cook, 15-year-old twins who have been repeatedly disciplined and threatened with suspension for having hair extensions. “As a result of the discriminatory hair policy and its disparate enforcement, the Cook sisters have been removed from participating in after-school sports, banned from their school prom, and given numerous detentions,” the complaint states.

    The ACLU also has information suggesting at least one Muslim student at Mystic was disciplined for participating in a religious holiday practice. She was celebrating Eid al-Fitr — a holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting — by adding henna to her hair, which is a tradition in Islam, according to the complaint. She was ordered to remove henna coloring while “white students with hair coloring have been ignored,” the complaint states.

    Parents of black and biracial students said Mystic Valley staff touched their daughters’ hair to check for extensions. The ACLU complaint notes that action was reserved for children of color.

    This is the second time in two years Mystic Valley has faced complaints from the ACLU. In 2015, the ACLU said two signs the school prominently displayed under its logo — advertising God, religion, and worship times for a nearby Baptist church — sent the message that a public school was endorsing a church, which is prohibited under the Constitution. A day after the ACLU filed the complaint, Mystic Valley removed the messages.

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