Metro

After backlash, Malden school suspends controversial hair policy

Demonstrators chanted during Sunday’s meeting of Mystic Valley Regional Charter School’s board of trustees.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Demonstrators chanted during Sunday’s meeting of Mystic Valley Regional Charter School’s board of trustees.

MALDEN — The board of trustees of a Malden charter school unanimously voted to suspend a controversial policy that punished students for wearing hair braid extensions, a rule that many said discriminates against black and biracial students.

The Mystic Valley Regional Charter School eliminated that provision of the school’s dress code for the rest of the academic year on Sunday, after meeting privately for more than two hours to discuss a letter from Attorney General Maura Healey saying that the policy was unlawful.

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“The school will continue to work with the attorney general’s office to ensure that the uniform policy reflects our longstanding commitment to the rights of all of our students,” Alexander Dan, the school’s interim director, said as he read from a prepared statement.

“Students who are either currently serving consequences, or accruing them, may immediately resume all before- and after-school activities,” Dan continued.

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Opponents of the policy, who protested outside the school before the vote, said later that they support the suspension and that it should be made permanent.

Since April, the school had subjected students who wear hair extensions — additional hair that is woven in — to detentions and suspensions. School administrators had described the style as “distracting” to other students and said it could highlight economic differences among students because of its cost.

Parents of students of color have called the policy racial discrimination.

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The dress code also banned hair that is “more than 2 inches in thickness or height,” which Healey’s office said is an apparent reference to Afros and fades most likely to be worn by black students.

Aaron Cook, father to 15-year-old twins Mya and Deanna Cook, Mystic Valley students who wear braids and have become the public face of the controversy, expressed cautious relief over the trustees’ decision.

“We are viewing this as a step in the right direction,” Cook said. He said it is “beneficial” that the school is suspending the policy for the remainder of the school year, but he added, “It doesn’t yet sound like they’ve decided to change that policy.”

He was also concerned that Dan’s statement did not address any suspensions or detentions that had concluded but remain on students’ records. “All of that needs to be wiped clean like it never occurred in order for us to be satisfied,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Healey offered measured approval for the board’s decision.

“Our office appreciates the Board of Trustees’ action tonight and Mystic Valley Regional Charter School’s commitment to the rights of all students,” said the spokeswoman, Jillian Fennimore, in a statement.

The executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, an organization of independent public schools that does not represent Mystic Valley, praised the move but called for further action.

“The board took the right action to suspend its discriminatory policy, and now needs to rescind it permanently,” Marc Kenen said in a statement.

The school’s policy drew widespread protest, leading a coalition of civil rights organizations including the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, and other groups to organize a rally outside the school before Sunday’s meeting.

The groups also issued a letter expressing “strong concern” about the policy, which they said was unevenly enforced.

“Apparently, to Mystic Valley, braids with extensions are ‘drastic,’ ‘unnatural’ and/or ‘distracting,’ ” reads the letter. It also cites an incident in which school officials allegedly forced a Muslim student to remove henna drawings from her hands during a holiday.

The letter alleges that there is “a severe lack of cultural sensitivity in the school.” It cites as evidence claims that black students are almost three times more likely than white students to be suspended at the school and that there is “at most” one black educator at the school, out of a staff of 160.

“Mystic Valley’s policy, both as written and as applied, discriminates against students of color and burdens religious expression. It must be changed,” the letter read.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a separate complaint with the state Education Department last week, arguing that the school’s policy “appears to be especially harmful to female students of color and it has been enforced in a disparate manner against them.”

As the trustees left a public room to enter an executive session on Sunday to discuss Healey’s letter, a crowd of nearly 100 opponents of the hair policy began chanting, “Let then learn! Let them learn!”

After several minutes, that cry ended in applause and was replaced with the message, “Hey hey! Ho ho! This racist policy’s got to go.”

Earlier, the crowd gathered outside the school, some holding signs with messages such as “Braids are beautiful.”

Mya Cook held a sign that read “Policy Disrespects Black Girls.” Deanna Cook’s sign read “We will not stop!!!”

The girls said they hoped the meeting would lead not only to a change in the dress code but a wider move toward appreciating diversity in school.

“I hope that the school will realize this is affecting a lot of people,” Mya said, “and people really do care.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.
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