The state attorney general Friday directed a Malden charter school to immediately stop punishing black and biracial students for wearing hairstyles the school said violate its dress code — rules the attorney general deemed discriminatory and unevenly enforced.
In a letter sent to Mystic Valley Regional Charter School, the office of Attorney General Maura Healey said the school’s hair and makeup policy violates state and federal law “by subjecting students of color, especially black students, to differential treatment and thus denying them the same advantages and privileges of public education afforded to other students.”
Since April, black female students who wear hair extensions have been subjected to detentions and suspensions.
A spokesman for Mystic Valley released a one-line statement from the school’s interim director, Alexander Dan.
“We are in receipt of the letter from the attorney general’s office, and it will be reviewed by the board of trustees at a meeting that has been called for Sunday night,” Dan said. Previously, Mystic Valley administrators had said extensions could highlight economic differences among students because of the hairstyle’s cost.
The school’s dress code prohibits extensions — additional hair that is woven in — citing them as an example of a style that is “distracting” to other students. It also bans hair that is “more than 2 inches in thickness or height,” an apparent reference to Afros most likely to be worn by black students, according to the attorney general’s office.
But parents have said the hairstyles are an important expression of the students’ culture, and decried the school’s crackdown as racist.
The attorney general agreed.
“These styles are not simply fashion choices or trends, but, in addition to occurring naturally in many cases, can be important expressions of racial culture, heritage, and identity,” said the letter from Genevieve Nadeau, chief of the civil rights division in the attorney general’s office. “To the extent that certain provisions of [Mystic Valley’s] policy have the purpose or effect of singling out students of color, they are clearly unlawful.”
Colleen Cook, whose twin 15-year-old daughters, Deanna and Mya, attend Mystic Valley and have served multiple detentions for wearing hair extensions, said she was delighted by the attorney general’s pronouncement.
“Wow, just wow, this is so amazing,” Cook said. “I am so happy for the girls. They were put through so much.”
Deanna and Mya Cook had been banned from extracurricular activities, including prom and Deanna’s track meets.
Colleen Cook said she and her husband tried unsuccessfully to reason with school administrators to make the dress code more equitable, not just on behalf of their daughters, but for all students at Mystic Valley.
“But they said the rules are the rules and we have to follow them,” Cook said. “Sometimes, you have to take a stand, and there is never a better time than right now to right the wrongs.”
When the Cooks struck out with school administrators, they sought help from local officials at the American Civil Liberties Union and the Anti-Defamation League.
The Anti-Defamation League arranged a phone conference with school administrators a week ago, but never heard from them. Instead, league officials received an e-mail referring them to a statement by administrators defending the school’s dress code policy, according to Robert Trestan, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League of New England, a nonprofit that fights anti-Semitism and other expressions of hate.
“It’s really unfortunate that it’s taken enforcement action to hold them publicly accountable,” Trestan said. “They are a public school, and that means they are accountable to the public and to the students they serve.”
The attorney general’s office said the school dress code has been unequally enforced. The letter said the attorney general’s investigation found photographs on social media belonging to the school with students in “clear violation” of the hair and makeup policy, including white students with colored, dyed, and streaked hair — all prohibited by the school.
“To the extent that [Mystic Valley] has applied the policy unequally to punish students of color more frequently or more harshly than other students, that too is clearly unlawful,” the letter said.
It highlighted state education data from the last academic year showing that while black students make up less than 18 percent of Mystic Valley’s student body, they represent more than 38 percent of students disciplined for all offenses, and more than 41 percent of students disciplined for “nondrug, nonviolent, or noncriminal related offenses.”
The letter said Healey and officials from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education met with school officials Thursday to discuss the punishments meted out to several students, in addition to the Cook twins.
It noted that school officials agreed after the meeting to allow Deanna Cook to run in a track meet Saturday. School officials also told the attorney general that Mystic Valley’s board of trustees planned to hold an emergency meeting Sunday night, according to the letter.
The letter from the attorney general’s office made clear it expected school officials to take action in that Sunday meeting.
“Please confirm immediately after that board meeting that Mya, Deanna, and any other students currently being punished for violating these provisions may immediately resume all school activities (including extracurricular and athletic activities) and that the school will not enforce the forgoing provisions of the hair/makeup policy pending the outcome of our investigation,” the letter said.
Read the letter from the attorney general’s office:
Kay Lazar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.