Parents of Kindergartener Claim Discrimination Over Haircut

Original article appeared in Yahoo Parenting.

By Rachel Bertsche

The parents of a 5-year-old boy have filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights against a California Catholic school after the administration deemed their son’s haircut distracting and said it would “unduly influence the student body,” according to the boy’s mother.

In December of last year, Jalyn Broussard, one of only five African-American students at Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Belmont, Calif., showed up to kindergarten with a new haircut. “It was a modern fade, a half inch on top, a quarter inch on the side. It was pretty tapered and neat. He’d seen it on the Michigan basketball players, and other prominent African-Americans have had it lately,” Mariana Broussard, Jalyn’s mother, tells Yahoo Parenting. When she brought both her sons to school that morning, Broussard says she saw the principal, who complimented the boys’ haircuts. But 30 minutes after the start of the school day, Broussard got a call asking her to pick Jalyn up from school and immediately get him a haircut. The school principal, Teri Grosey, told Broussard that, because Jalyn’s hair was longer on top than on the sides, it was in violation of school policy.

“I looked online and reread the haircut policy to make sure we were talking about the same language,” Broussard says. The policy, according to the school website, states that “All hairstyles must be appropriate for a Catholic grade school: extreme hairstyles, hair dye, highlights or extensions are not allowed (this includes feathers, foils, tinsel, ‘bling strands,’ hi-lites, faux hawks, tails and spiking). Hair should not be hanging over the student’s eyes as this affects the learning process. Boys’ hair is not to be below top of shirt collar. Students who do not follow the school hairstyle policy will face consequences of such things as loss of school privileges or detention.”

Broussard did not believe her son’s haircut fell outside the policy — it was not “extreme” and was not a “faux hawk,” she says — and she didn’t understand the urgency of the school’s demand for an immediate haircut. “He’s 5, he’s in kindergarten, he’s in a separate building than the rest of the school. I don’t know what kind of undue influence he was going to be for having his hair half an inch longer on top.”

Still, Broussard and her husband agreed to cut Jalyn’s hair because Grosey said he would not be able to participate in school functions until he lost the fade. “We went to the barber and got his head shaved. Jalyn was sad and was crying and didn’t want to be bald for Christmas,” Broussard recalls.

The next day, Broussard met with Grosey to discuss the haircut.

“I brought pictures of Michael Strahan and other African-Americans who had the style. I said, ‘maybe you aren’t familiar with African-American styles, since my son is only one of five African-American kids at the school,’” she says. “I was not trying to get them to change the policy, I just didn’t feel my son fell outside of it. I did feel there were many other students whose hair was longer on the middle than the sides — maybe it was less noticeable because it was straight and fell to the side, whereas my son’s hair is curly, so it stays in place. But just because their hair lays down doesn’t mean there should be different enforcement of the rules. I was trying to say ‘maybe you aren’t aware, let’s talk about it and have a dialogue.’ She wasn’t open to that.” Broussard says Grosey didn’t entertain the idea that perhaps the rule wasn’t being enforced equally across the student body.

Grosey did not respond to Yahoo Parenting’s request for comment.

Broussard says that after that conversation, the matter was essentially put to rest. “I stated my piece, we cut his hair, it could have been over,” she says. But when Jalyn and his brother returned to school after winter break, an eighth grade student showed up to school with a very similar haircut to Jalyn’s. “I figured he would be asked to change his haircut before he came to school the next day. But instead, the next day he read at Mass in front of the whole church and school. I didn’t understand — my son was going to be an undue influence, but he could stand up in front of the entire church and read?”

The student in question was Asian-American, and the son of a teacher at the school. When Broussard brought up the issue of this student’s haircut, which was short on the sides and longer on top, Grosey told her his was a “modern crew cut” and it was ok because it was tapered in the back. “The only distinguishing factor was the texture of the hair — his hair is straight and my son’s hair is curly,” Broussard says. “Her explanation was that Jalyn’s haircut was just more noticeable, but he doesn’t have the same options as kids with straight hair. That’s not inclusive of different ethnic backgrounds and different hair textures.”

Jennifer Bezoza, an attorney for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, who is representing the Broussards, says the different treatment amounts to discrimination. “We think this is a really clear case of race discrimination,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “Jalyn was treated differently than other students who had more extreme haircuts.”

By the end of January, Broussard had removed her sons from Immaculate Heart of Mary and enrolled them at the local public school. She did so, she says, because of “the administration’s lack of willingness to come to the table and have a conversation. How you are in small things is how you are in big things. If they are not willing to have a conversation, it’s worrisome. It means I don’t trust them in a bigger issue.”

In the complaint filed last week, the Broussards are seeking reimbursement for the year’s tuition for both children, totaling about $16,000, and a reevaluation of policies so as to prevent discrimination going forward, Bezoza says. “They want more recognition  of cultural differences, and some plan in place to ensure other students with differences are not treated in this manner.”

Larry Kamer, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, which oversees Immaculate Heart of Mary, tells Yahoo Parenting he has not yet seen the complaint so cannot comment on it. Still, he addressed some of the issues at hand. “At this school and at Catholic elementary schools in the Archdiocese, one of the highest values that teachers and the community work to impart on the children is tolerance and diversity and the worth of every human being. This is obviously something we take quite seriously when someone says they had a different experience.”

Kamer says that the issue of the hairstyle is cut and dry, so to speak.

“There is a very clear policy about dress and hair and personal appearance that is well understood. The parents read, acknowledge, take hard copies home, and agree to the policy in order to send their kids to school.” Still, he says, the issue of unequal treatment will be looked at closely. “With regards to the issue of how this boy was treated — that’s something we can’t comment on since it’s the basis for the complaint — but anytime anyone raises an issue concerning race, diversity, and alleged unfair treatment, that’s something we take very, very seriously and will certainly do so in this case.”

Bezoza says the complaint is about more than just a haircut. “The bigger issue is that schools need to treat all students equally,” she says. “Students should not be singled out by an immutable characteristic. The only difference between Jalyn and the other student is the texture of their hair — he’s African-American and his hair has a different texture.”

For now, Broussard says her sons are looking forward to returning to the local public school in the fall, where there is a stronger focus on global community. And both are sporting their modern fades. “I think its important to stand up for our kids,” she says. “We need to make sure that in the future this doesn’t happen — whether it’s about race or something else, we need to be sure schools have a procedure in place so treatment is equitable.”