Parents in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, express concern over a Catholic high school’s dress code that would have caused their black son to cut off his shoulder-length dreadlocks.
Last week, Toni Schafer, mother of 14-year-old Braxton, said the deputy principal of O’Gorman High School approached her during a school open house and expressed concern about the length of her son’s hair. Braxton has worn his hair in dreadlocks since he was about 8 years old, she said.
The deputy principal called it a policy violation and pointed to O’Gorman’s uniform policy that requires boys’ hair not to “touch the collar,” the school said. website. Schafer told NBC News that this was the first time anyone in the O’Gorman Catholic Schools system had raised concerns about the length of Braxton’s hair. He’s been wearing shoulder-length dreadlocks since enrolling in the private Catholic school system in 2018, she said.
While Schafer didn’t specifically sue the school for discrimination, she did note that “the reason he cut his hair had nothing to do with policy,” and later added, “He’s always been an outsider.”
The current school uniform code states that boys’ hair length must be above the collar. Braxton’s hair reaches down to his shoulders.
Schafer said she reached out to the school’s principal, Joan Mahoney, to discuss policies and why cutting her son’s hair wasn’t an option for the family. In an email, she explained that the length of Braxton’s hair had just as much, if not more, cultural significance as the haircut.
“The most important part of that cultural piece is the length of the slot, not the actual slot itself,” she told NBC News.
Schafer said that after meeting with school administrators Friday afternoon, they still could not find a suitable solution and that she was told that the option of a “man’s bun” or an alternative to an updo was still considered a policy violation.
“This is about my son. I want him to feel comfortable,” Schafer said, noting that while the term “expelling” was never used, she felt it was implied.
Schafer said she asked the school board if Braxton could stay on for the rest of the semester to finish his football and marching band season. The school eventually agreed, saying that because Braxton’s hair length had not been addressed in high school, they felt he should stay in school and continue his activities without having to cut his hair.
Despite the small win, Schafer said the ordeal was “really tough” for her family and they were “never headed for any of this.”
“The only person who has been hurt by all of this and really touched deeply is Braxton,” she said.
In a statement to NBC News, an O’Gorman Catholic Schools spokesperson said the school system’s dress code is re-evaluated every five years with input from all stakeholders, and that in 2018, 80% of parents said the dress code for men’s hair length would should stay in place.
The spokesperson said the dress code allows for “culturally appropriate hairstyles such as dreadlocks” and several other students have dreadlocks that still comply with the policy. The spokesperson added that it is common for drivers to visit students about their hair length at the beginning of the year.
“Despite claims to the contrary, school administrators never told parents that if the student did not cut his hair, he would have to leave or be disfellowshipped,” the statement said. “The meeting with the parents ended with the understanding that a further dialogue would take place in the hope of finding a solution that would allow the pupil to stay at our school.”
The incident comes amid recent waves of state legislation to outlaw discrimination against natural hair. In July, Massachusetts became the last of more than a dozen states to pass its own version of the CROWN Act, which stands for “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” into law. The House of Representatives passed a federal version of the anti-discrimination law in March, but it remained stuck along party lines in the Senate.
In 2021 a attempt outlawing hair-based discrimination in South Dakota went nowhere in the state legislature.
Reynold Nesiba, a state senator who represents Sioux Falls and one of the bill’s sponsors, said that after receiving feedback from the Senate Committee on State Affairs, the bill became more focused on hair discrimination at work. The bill stalled again in 2022. Nesiba blames the bill’s failure on the makeup of the legislature, which he says does not accurately reflect the state’s racial demographics.
“It’s important for Sioux Falls and it’s important for South Dakota to make it clear that we welcome everyone here,” he said.