Catholic schools are still cracking down on braids and cornrows despite anti-discrimination laws

Erin Donnelly
Catholic schools in New York are still cracking down on braids and other hairstyles despite the Crown Act. (Photo: Getty Images)
Catholic schools in New York are still cracking down on braids and other hairstyles despite the Crown Act. (Photo: Getty Images)

A mother’s lawsuit against a school she says refused to let her 9-year-old son wear braids is raising concerns that laws banning discrimination against natural hairstyles are not being applied to Catholic schools.

The New York Daily News reports that new city and state legislation outlawing discrimination against those — particularly people of color — sporting natural hair is being rejected by Catholic schools in New York City, with more than a dozen continuing to enforce dress code bans against braids on male students as well as cornrows. In July, New York became the second state, following California, to make it illegal to discriminate against natural hair and hairstyles.

“For much of our nation's history, people of color — particularly women — have been marginalized and discriminated against simply because of their hairstyle or texture," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement about the legislation. "By signing this bill into law, we are taking an important step toward correcting that history and ensuring people of color are protected from all forms of discrimination."

Immaculate Conception Catholic Academy in Queens is now being sued by mom Lavona Batts, who filed a lawsuit last month after it cracked down on her son Jediah’s braids; the boy has since transferred to a new school. Though Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have criticized the school’s hair policy banning braids, the academy may be protected by a loophole in this year’s anti-discrimination laws stating that they don’t apply to “private, religious or denominational educational institutions” or any “religious corporation incorporated under the education law."

Oliver Koppell, the attorney representing Batts, disagrees.

“The bans on hairstyle are illegal under state and city law,” Koppell tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “There is no doubt in my mind.”

He adds that he is awaiting a response from the school and diocese. And while a spokesman for the Brooklyn Diocese, which also represents Queens, told the Daily News that the superintendent has “requested that all of our academies and schools closely examine their hair policy,” there’s concern that schools with religious affiliations may bypass bans that are considered discriminatory elsewhere. (As the paper notes, a high-end Manhattan hair salon was fined $70,000 and made to complete community service and training after employees said its owner complained about their natural hairstyles.)

While the Brooklyn Diocese statement suggested that rules against braids and “corn rolls,” as the Bronx’s St. John’s School put it, may be updated, the New York Diocese has defended its right to enforce such bans.

“Families attending any Catholic school agree to adhere to the terms of the school’s handbook, which will include guidelines on hair, wardrobe and personal conduct,” T.J. McCormack, a spokesman for the archdiocese, which supervises Catholic schools in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, told the Daily News.

“It makes me very uneasy that the [New York] Archdiocese is not going to step in and encourage all of their schools to be compliant with state law,” Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright (D–Brooklyn), who helped draft the legislation, told the paper.

"I am disappointed that our Catholic schools are continuing to promote grooming policies that reinforce biased attitudes and beliefs which ultimately harm young students,” Wright added in a statement to Yahoo Lifestyle. “I'd like to believe that we as a society have come much further along in our attitudes and norms, that we would reject and change policies that stigmatize and demean young people simply for existing as they were created. 

“Unfortunately, these Catholic school policies serve as a constant reminder that some continue to promote ‘respectability policies’ which do not respect black boys nor black culture.  So, while we have not eradicated this biased and harmful behavior, the consciousness of our society demands that we continue to refine our laws and create policies that curtail this discriminatory behavior.  As we move into the new session we will be working to do just that."

Yahoo Lifestyle has reached out to the New York Archdiocese for further comment.

Hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros and cornrows have frequently been targeted and designated as “extreme” by schools and workplaces. Recent cases include an 8-year-old Michigan girl barred from her school picture day and a Texas teen who says he was denied a job at Six Flags because of his hairstyle.

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