That ban is tone deaf when it comes to understanding cultural and fashion norms. But throwing around the “r-word” in that context seems like a stretch when Mystic Valley — which makes national best-of-the-country high school lists — also boasts of impressive academic success for its students of color.
“Our formula consistently delivers top results,” Alexander Dan, the school’s interim director, wrote to parents as the hair extension controversy drew to a close. “Our African-American students have higher MCAS and SAT scores than African-American students from all other districts in the region and nearly all attend college. Our dropout and attrition rates for African-American students are not only lower than those in sending districts, but they are lower than Caucasian rates. The role that our uniform policy plays in these results, and those of all our students, is not insignificant.”
Those results should matter — and the formula that yields it should matter too.
However, students of color and their parents said the policy on its face was discriminatory, and Attorney General Maura Healey agreed. In a letter sent to the Malden charter school, the AG’s office wrote that hair extensions are not simply fashion choices but “also can be important expressions of racial culture, heritage, and identity, in addition to serving very practical needs unique to black women and girls.” As the letter pointed out, the policy falls disproportionately on one group — black female students. The AG’s letter also said that the school’s hair and makeup policy was “at best — inconsistently applied” — and that is a problem.
The ban on hair extensions has been in place at Mystic Valley since at least the 2003-2004 school year. It’s part of a dress code policy designed to “provide commonality, structure, and equity to an ethnically and economically diverse student body while eliminating distractions.” Those are not terrible — or racist — goals, and parents sign onto them when they send their children to this charter school. According to the school, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has reviewed the dress code policy at least six times over the last 15 years and identified no concerns.
In 2017, students and their parents took the policy to the court of public opinion, and racism in connection with Mystic Valley made its way into headlines across the country. It’s an easy way to get results. Rather than take up an extended legal battle, the school basically gave up on the hair extension policy and is reviewing its entire dress code. For opponents fixated on hair as an important symbol of cultural expression, it’s victory. But for students of color, is it really the most important battle to be won? In a footnote, the AG’s letter points out that while black students make up less than 18 percent of the student body, they make up more than 38 percent of students disciplined for all offenses and more than 41 percent of students disciplined for “non-drug, non-violent or non-criminal-related offenses.” That’s a real concern — and not unique to Mystic Valley. But it’s easier to change a dress code at one school than a mindset everywhere.
The price of academic success shouldn’t include the need to put up with racism. But academically, Mystic Valley is doing something right by all its students, and there’s nothing racist about that.