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A 14-year-old was suspended for his 'distracting' haircut — but his mom says there's a bigger problem

Elise Solé
A school district has apologized to a mother for punishing her son for his “distracting hairstyle.” (Photo: Erika Paggett/ACLU)

A California school district is reimbursing a mother $20 for her son’s haircut which teachers deemed “distracting” and agreed to revise its dress code policy.

On February 23rd, Erika Paggett’s 14-year-old son (who she is declining to name for privacy reasons), a student at Tenaya Middle School in Fresno, California, was called to the vice principal’s office during class.

“The vice principal told my son that he needed to cut his hair because it was distracting and violated the dress code,” the 36-year-old single mother-of-four, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. The boy had recently shaved squiggly lines into his head, a look the mom said “gave him confidence.” The school did not contact Paggett that day, but when her son came home and relayed the news, she agreed to a new haircut.

Per the Fresno Unified School District dress code policy, the following is not allowed: “Hairstyles which draw undue attention detract from the educational environment and not acceptable; i.e. unusual designs, colors, mohawks, tails, or unusual razor cuts.” Just like week, the district asked a third-grade girl to cut her hair — also deemed “distracting” and in violation of the dress code — a move her mother told Yahoo Lifestyle was “gender bias.”

Paggett tried to book an appointment with her barber, however, the shop was closed for the next several days. Due to a shortage of black hair stylists in the neighborhood, Paggett sent her son to school on Monday instructing him to tell vice principal that she was trying to get an appointment.

That day the boy made honor roll and Paggett says there were no incidents regarding his hair.

On Tuesday, Paggett touched base with the vice principal. “She said she would look at my son’s hair again and keep me posted. But that worst-case scenario, he would face in-school suspension until his hair grew back,” she says. “I requested that my son is issued a warning, to allow time to grow out his hair. She told me, ‘Rules are rules’ and she’d call me soon.”

A few hours later, Paggett received a call from her son saying that campus security had pulled him out of class and placed him under in-house suspension.

“I called the head principal who told me to take my son to Supercuts,” says Paggett. “But I told her they might not be familiar with the texture of black people’s hair. She wasn’t sympathetic and I was offended.”

The following day, Pagett’s barber was able to cut her son’s hair.

However, still unsatisfied with the outcome, Paggett penned an open letter to the district which she shared on Facebook and Twitter. In it, she asked for cultural and diversity training for school staff and a revised dress code “to remove any ambiguous language that may easily be misinterpreted or unfairly implemented to single out students of a specific ethnic group or cultural background.”

Paggett also called for adequate time to rectify dress code violations that could economically impact families (Paggett had to miss work for the barber appointment) and a request for students to take an “eye-opening” field trip to a black barbershop.

When the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California saw Paggett’s open letter on March 1, it offered to help. “The California Education Code clarifies that students have a right to ‘expressive conduct’ and that includes hairstyles that reflect a person’s culture,” Abre’ Conner, an ACLU staff attorney, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The wording of the school dress code leaves a room for discretion and has been applied in a way, that we believe, violates black students’ rights and has been enforced with discrimination.” 

As a result of Paggett’s partnership with the ACLU, the district issued an apology to the mother and son and agreed to reimburse them for the haircut. It will also erase the suspension from the boy’s student record and analyze the provisions of the dress code. Conner also recommended that staff undergo cultural and explicit bias training.

“The district acknowledges that the dress code hasn’t been updated in 26 years,” a representative from the Fresno Unified School District tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It’s time to work with the students and community to create an updated dress code.”

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