States and cities are banning hair discrimination. Here’s how that’s affecting schools.

In 2017, a charter school outside Boston issued multiple detentions to black 15-year-old girls who wore their hair in braided extensions, saying the hairstyle violated the dress code.

In 2018, a referee in New Jersey forced a 16-year-old mixed-race wrestler to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit his match.

And in 2019, a public elementary school in suburban Atlanta displayed several photos of black children, including girls with braids, to illustrate “inappropriate” haircuts.

Now, a wave of new laws means millions of students have new protections against discrimination if they wear their hair in styles like these. The laws all look to prevent black children and adults from facing negative consequences for how they wear their hair at school and work. And while most are too new to have made an impact yet, advocates hope they will prompt more changes to school dress codes and discipline policies. 

“They’re particularly meaningful because black women and girls are being penalized for the way that hair literally grows out of our heads,” said Jade Magnus Ogunnaike, a campaign director at Color Of Change, a nonprofit civil rights group that advocates for these laws. 

“If you’re suspended from school because of the way that you wear your hair, how are you supposed to have faith or confidence in your school, and that the staff and the institution cares about you?”

In just the last year, California, New York and New Jersey have passed laws banning discrimination based on hair styles or textures that are commonly associated with a person’s race or nationality. New York City, Cincinnati, and Montgomery County, Maryland have issued their own bans. 

That group looks likely to grow. Thirteen additional states and the city of Baltimore are considering similar laws, according to the coalition tracking the effort, while Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey recently introduced a federal bill to outlaw hair discrimination, pointing to the case of the New Jersey high school wrestler. 

Meanwhile, the nation’s largest teachers union has also called on educators to push for more inclusive school hair policies in their districts, even if a law hasn’t yet passed in their state. 

“Some states, but not enough, have banned hair discrimination — an important step in protecting students against implicit and explicit bias,” the National Education Association wrote on its Twitter account this fall. 

Black students being disciplined for how they wear their hair have fueled debates for years about the amount of control schools should be able to exert over their students — particularly students of color. 

Some schools have argued that dress codes are a critical component of school culture, and certain hairstyles or headwraps are distracting, unprofessional, or promote gangs or prison culture. Increasingly, students have pushed back, arguing that such definitions of professionalism are rooted in racism.

Aundrey Page grappled with this issue when he became the principal of a KIPP high school in San Francisco last summer. 

Before Page started his new job, he interviewed students, asking what they liked about their school and what they wanted to see changed. Several black female students told him they wanted to be able to wear headwraps and headscarves in class, so Page made that change as part of a larger effort to relax the school’s dress code.

He sees the changes as “intertwined and interrelated” with the work he’s done at KIPP and his own school to shift toward more restorative and less punitive discipline.

“I think it’s important for us, as a society, that we continue to look at ourselves in the mirror and think about, in what ways have we used small things like dress code to keep people from having equitable access to opportunity?” Page said. “How much of this is anti-blackness, or systemic racism, and trying to get our students to fit a certain mold?”

Elsewhere, dress codes forbidding headscarves, headwraps, and durags have prompted protests by black parents and students, who often wear these styles to protect their hair or to express black cultural pride. 

In 2018, for example, students at Success Academy’s high school in New York City protested when the charter school cracked down on wearing headscarves and headwraps. 

“It is a part of our culture to wear headwraps and it helps us take care of our natural hair, which is like kinky and curly and not the same as most of our teachers,” one student told Chalkbeat at the time.

Most of the new bans, which apply to all public schools (and to private schools in some places), are written to protect hairstyles commonly worn by black people and mention styles like Afros, braids, twists, and dreadlocks, or locs. 

Others go further. Guidance put out by New Jersey and New York City includes a long list of protected hairstyles, including fades; a top official with the agency charged with enforcing New York City’s guidance said that would include when students have lines shaved into their fades, a common hairstyle that has led black students to be disciplined in schools across the country. 

New York City’s guidance also explicitly protects “covering one’s hair with a headscarf or wrap,”  something other cities and states do not mention.

“We tried to be as inclusive as possible about the range of styles that are associated with black culture,” said Brittny Saunders, the deputy commissioner for the city’s human rights commission. “We wanted to have guidance that’s reflective of the sorts of experience with discrimination and harassment that students were having.”

(Success Academy’s high school dress code still prohibits durags, according to the handbook posted on its website. A Success Academy spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.)

Advocates see these laws as part of a broader push to reduce racial disparities in how students are disciplined at school. Research has shown that black girls face disproportionate discipline for low-level offenses like dress code violations. 

And some say the laws on the books don’t go far enough and want to see changes — especially as more than a dozen other states look to pass similar legislation.

As it’s written, Massachusetts’ proposed law would exempt private religious schools, notes Sean Kealy, an associate professor of law at Boston University who spent a semester reviewing these laws with his students. 

That’s also been true in other cities and states, which has led to pushback in places like San Diego and New York City. In some cases, no private schools have to comply.

Kealy and the dean of Boston University’s law school, Angela Onwuachi-Willig, plan to ask the Massachusetts bill’s sponsor to narrow the exemption for religious entities to apply only when a particular hairstyle is required by a religion. The Catholic Church doesn’t have specific hair requirements, for example, so if a ban passes, they want Catholic schools to have to follow the rules.

“We want to close all the loopholes,” Onwuachi-Willig said. 

Onwuachi-Willig and Kealy also want guidance to be issued to school administrators and for students to be informed of their rights. So far, some state education agencies haven’t taken an active role in spreading the word about the new laws. 

When officials at California and New York State’s departments of education were asked what they’d done to help schools follow their state’s new hair discrimination bans, officials pointed to the general discrimination complaint procedures online.

New Jersey’s education department pointed to guidance issued by the state’s attorney general’s office after an investigation into the case of the high school wrestler who was forced to cut off his locs. The state’s agreement says all officials and staff involved in New Jersey high school athletics must receive implicit bias training.

What the new laws do offer is a way for students and their families to file formal complaints if they experience this kind of discrimination. But it’s hard to judge their impact so far. 

New York City’s ban on hair discrimination, issued nearly a year ago, has been around the longest. Officials there are investigating discrimination complaints, but none that originated at schools, though the city agency that enforces the ban has conducted trainings at schools.

Still, parents like Erika Paggett see these laws as an important step. In 2018, when Paggett’s son was in eighth grade, he was given an in-school suspension by his Fresno, California middle school for having a few lines shaved into his hair, a style school officials said was distracting.

Paggett tried to resolve the issue with administrators, who insisted her son get his hair re-cut to end the suspension. She eventually posted an open letter about the incident on social media, which caught the eye of the local ACLU. 

Eventually, the district changed its dress code. Paggett said she was glad to see the policy overhauled and to see California pass a law to protect other students, but it doesn’t erase what happened to her son.

“To tell a student that something natural about them is bad, or a crime, or something that they deserve to be punished for, it has a lasting impact on how they see themselves,” she said. “I wish we never experienced that.”