#LongHairDontCare... Unless You Live in Clovis
Like any other high school student, William Pleasant, a seventeen-year-old, biracial Black senior, arrived at Buchanan High ready to enroll in his five Advanced Placement (AP) classes for the coming school year.
But unlike other students, the school refused to give him his course schedule.
Why did the school refuse? His hair. They said it was too long. After the district withheld his senior schedule, William sought a cultural exemption for his hairstyle. The district refused to grant him a waiver because they stated his Afro did not qualify for a cultural exemption. Feeling frustrated and defeated, William submitted a Letter to the Editor to the Fresno Bee.
To many, a student’s hair seems like a trivial reason to deny someone access to an education. But the Clovis Unified School District had been using William’s hair as a reason to punish him since his junior year.
That year, William was given a warning, a subsequent lunch detention, two hours of after school detention, a four-hour after school detention called Thursday school, and three additional unofficial violations. All because his hair did not conform to the school district’s idea of what male and female hair should look like. During William’s junior year, he began fighting the unfair dress code and wrote an email to the school district explaining why it violated the law and his rights.
Currently, male students’ hair cannot pass the mid-point of a shirt collar. That’s the policy – and yes, it’s just for male students.
This policy violates the law and the district is changing its policy only to address gender-based discrimination. Nevertheless, when the administration explained this change to the ACLU, William, and his mother, they also stated dreadlocks are sometimes permissible if the student is also Rastafarian because that would be a religious exemption. By conflating religious and cultural exemptions only for Black students, this statement demonstrates the school district misses the point in understanding his hairstyle is actually an expression of his cultural identity.
This is not new for Clovis. The school district continuously marginalizes communities of color and lacks basic cultural competency.
Fully recognizing and appreciating Black culture is necessary for the school district to treat students equally. However, the school district staff doesn’t believe that hair can be a form of cultural expression for Black students.
Seems like in 2015, a gender-based hair policy and cultural competency in a school district are past due for change. Although William was ultimately allowed to register for his classes, Clovis still has a long way to go.
When Viola Davis was asked why she wears her hair naturally, she said, “It’s about teaching a culture how to treat you. Because at the end of the day, you define you.”
Although school just started for students in Clovis, dismantling the administration’s racially biased practices and restructuring them to create an inclusive school climate is where Clovis has a lot to learn.
Abre' Conner is a Staff Attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.