When a school makes wearing a specific item of clothing off-limits, it’s usually the students who stage a protest to have the rule changed.
But in one North Carolina district, about two dozen parents rallied outside a high school for an hour on Monday, demonstrating against a policy that banned students from wearing “headgear” (such as hats, hoods, and bandannas).
The protest stemmed from an incident earlier this month, when a group of female students, the Young Women of Excellence, decided to celebrate Black History Month by each wearing a traditional colorful African headdress called a gele to their school, the School for Creative Studies.
According to the parents, when the students arrived at school in their geles, the principal demanded that the teens remove them, citing the headgear policy. If they didn’t, their daughters were threatened with disciplinary action, parents told Raleigh, N.C.’s Eyewitness News/WTVD.
“This is not right. This is not fair. We will not stand for it,” Afiya Carter, mom of a 15-year-old girl who wore a gele to school, told WTVD. “This is about supporting these young people and letting them know that their cultural expression is something to be valued, and value other people’s cultural expressions.”
“They’re having to alter who they are in order to assimilate into society, and I don’t feel like that’s right,” parent Dosali Reed-Bandele told North Carolina news station WNCN.
But a spokesperson for Durham Public Schools tells Yahoo Parenting that though city schools do ban headgear and that the students were asked to comply by removing their geles, no student was threatened with punishment.
“The principal and others at the school tell me they never threatened the students with suspension, and indeed would not have found suspension to be an appropriate discipline for students breaking the policy against hats and headwear,” Durham Public Schools chief communications officer Chrissy Deal tells Yahoo Parenting.
After talking to the students, “The principal met with those young women and encouraged them to share their lessons with the rest of the school,” says Deal.
The way some parents see it, their daughters should be able to wear geles as often as they want. “We’re saying that it’s not just for one day; we’re saying our daughters who express themselves should be able to express themselves culturally every single day of the their lives,” Reed-Bandele told WTVD.
In a statement sent to Yahoo Parenting, Durham Schools superintendent Dr. Bert L’Homme said that as a result of the incident and protest, his office is reviewing the code of conduct.
“I have heard the concerns of parents and community members who feel our policy prohibiting hats and headwear is too strict or that it infringes on students’ cultural expression,” he wrote. “I understand their concerns and assure them that I will share their thoughts with the committee that is currently reviewing and suggesting revisions to our Code of Student Conduct.”
L’Homme added that he appreciates “both the initiative shown by the young women at SCS and the school’s willingness to give these student leaders an opportunity to incorporate their ideas into a schoolwide program. The gele, its history, and how to wear it are now part of the school’s Black History Month activities for both middle school and high school students.”
Allowing teens to express their culture and identity through clothing is a smart policy because it prevents students from feeling marginalized or shamed, Beverly Hills child psychotherapist Fran Walfish tells Yahoo Parenting.
“Banning cultural displays is detrimental because it implies that kids have to hide who they are, and that forces them to go underground” and not be integrated into the world, she says. “Whether it’s a cultural expression, a religious one, or relating to their sexual identity, displaying it is important to healthy self-esteem.”