The mother of a student at a Phoenix charter school withdrew her student last week after the school said that her son’s braids violated the school’s hair policy. But now, the school's administration is backpedaling after local organizations, including the ACLU, said the dress code discriminates against students of color.
In an emailed statement to Phoenix New Times, the superintendent of Great Hearts Academies’ Arizona network said that the seventh-grade student is welcome back at Teleos Preparatory Academy "with no change in hairstyle." They’ll also conduct an internal review “to ensure this policy is sensitive to the cultural diversity we are proud to have in our academies.”
Brittany Anderson, the mother of 12-year-old Nasir, said that the school's headmaster called her today to ask for a sit-down meeting and to say that her son was welcome back at the school. For Anderson, however, emotions are mixed.
"I’m happy because it affects all the students who can now truly express themselves," she told New Times. "It’s frustrating because it’s eight days later, and I think it’s probably because the ACLU is involved now that they actually changed it."
As for whether she'll re-enroll her son at Teleos, Anderson says she probably won't.
"Mainly because I don’t want him to go back to school feeling awkward, and secondly and most importantly, I don’t want any type of retaliation toward him," she said. As of last week, Nasir is enrolled at the Greenfield School.
Last week, Anderson wrote on Facebook that a teacher called her to say Nasir’s hairstyle didn’t meet the boys’ dress code outlined in the students handbook, even though his hair was clean-cut, in two braids down the back.
“The teacher told me I need to come and pick him up from school and basically could not return until his hair was no longer the same,” Anderson wrote. As a result, she withdrew her son from the school.
“I don’t believe in anyone dictating how my son should look especially if he’s following these uniform guidelines they have in place,” she wrote.
News coverage followed, as well as a joint statement between the Arizona chapter of the ACLU and a local nonprofit, the Black Mothers Forum, that called the grooming policies discriminatory.
Janelle Wood of the Black Mothers Forum said in the statement that the dress code at Teleos was “specifically created as another means of targeting and harassing our black children.”
After the school reversed its stance on Nasir's hair, Wood said that she felt relieved, even though it was unfortunate that it took public outcry for it to change.
"They recognized that their dress code is targeted, and it's especially targeted toward the black community, and it’s punitive," Wood told New Times. As the founder of a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of black youth, Wood has also heard about other parents who, like Anderson, have experienced discrimination when enrolling their children in schools.
"I believe that this dress code issue is not just Great Hearts, but we’re seeing this at multiple schools where they’re excluding black students for their hair," Wood said. "Or they’re using exclusionary measures to filter out who they don’t want in the school."
Great Hearts is a prestigious charter school network with 28 schools in Arizona and Texas. But the network's dress-code policy is only the latest controversy over Great Hearts' commitment to diversity and inclusion.
Recently, the charter schools came under fire for a biological sex and gender policy that bars transgender students from using facilities that correspond to their gender identity.
As of Wednesday, it appears Great Hearts is reversing itself on the dress code policy in the student handbook, which states that boys' hair should be "neatly combed or styled."
Hair must be well-off the top of the shirt collar. Hair should not fall below the eyebrows or past the mid-point of the ear. Hair cannot be tucked behind the ears. No shaved heads, Mohawks, rat’s tails, pony tails, or braids.
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“We have reached out to the family of the student involved to explain that their son is welcome at Great Hearts with no change in hairstyle,” Great Hearts Arizona Superintendent Robert Wagner said in the statement on Wednesday. “Our grooming policy is well intentioned, but we appreciate this young man and his family bringing this forward and will make appropriate adjustments.”
It's a 180-degree change from last week, when Great Hearts essentially told ABC15 that families who don't agree with the Teleos dress code can leave. "We understand parents have a choice about where their children attend school, and some may not agree with our dress code policy, which is certainly their right," the charter network said in a statement at the time.
Anderson, who is 32, said that the call from the Teleos headmaster today was the first time the school's leadership had contacted her to address the issue of her son's hair.
"I’m still frustrated, because it took all of this," she said.