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Malden school defends controversial hair policy it suspended

Students protested against the school’s policy before its board of trustees met Sunday.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

A Malden charter school that has weathered intense criticism for a ban on hair extensions defended its stance in a letter to parents Monday, less than a day after the school’s board of trustees voted unanimously to suspend the hair policy.

Mystic Valley Regional Charter School administrators said they believed the rule would have withstood a court challenge but opted to suspend it for the rest of the school year to avoid an expensive fight.

“We do not wish to engage in a legal battle that would further divert the focus and energy of our faculty and students, siphoning financial resources from the school and the students it serves,” the letter stated.


Since late April, black and biracial students have been punished for wearing extensions in their hair, discipline that parents and a growing list of civil rights groups call discriminatory. But Mystic Valley’s leaders, in the letter to parents, said they stood by their reasons for prohibiting the extensions, calling the school’s dress code “central to the success of our students.”

“It helps provide commonality, structure, and equity to an ethnically and economically diverse student body while eliminating distractions caused by vast socioeconomic differences and competition over fashion, style, or materialism,” the letter from administrators said.

The trustees decided Sunday to lift the prohibition against hair extensions for the rest of the school year and to allow students who had been barred from extracurricular activities because of their hairstyles to resume participation.

Civil rights lawyers, however, said they remain skeptical about the school’s actions. Three dozen civil rights and education groups have signed a letter to Mystic Valley condemning the policy and demanding it be permanently rescinded.

“The steps taken do not resolve the issues,” said Sarah Wunsch, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts , one of the groups that signed the letter. “This demonstrates there are serious underlying issues beyond the hair policy, and they just don’t get it.”


The groups are asking that Mystic Valley permanently eliminate its ban on hair extensions — additional hair that is woven in — and its policy prohibiting hair that is more than 2 inches in height to ensure “black students receive equal treatment.”

The groups also want all detentions and suspensions imposed on students for violating these rules to be removed from their records.

Mystic Valley spokesman Ray Howell said Monday the school could not comment on the request to wipe the infractions from student records, citing student privacy. He said Monday’s letter spoke for itself, and that school trustees would be reviewing the dress code this summer.

The office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is investigating the school’s dress code and last week notified Mystic Valley that its rules concerning hairstyles violate state and federal laws “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.”

In a letter last week to the school, the attorney general’s office said its 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 Mystic Valley.


“We will work collaboratively with the attorney general’s office to make sure that the policy is consistent with the longstanding commitment to the rights of all our students,” the school’s letter stated.

Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com.