Haircut dispute with son’s school raises Belmont mom’s hackles

Original article appeared in SF Gate.

by jenna lyons

A Belmont mother filed a federal discrimination complaint against her 5-year-old son’s former school, saying he was singled out and not allowed to sport a popular hairstyle because he is black.

Mariana Broussard said that in December — a day before a class Christmas party and the day of a concert her son spent three weeks preparing for — Jalyn cried because officials at the Catholic school, Immaculate Heart of Mary, wouldn’t let him attend without getting rid of his short “fade” haircut, in which the hair is longer on top than on the sides.

“He cried that day and said he didn’t want to be bald for Christmas,” said his mother, who pulled her son from the Belmont school in January in the wake of the alleged Dec. 18 incident.

She filed a discrimination complaint this month with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. She wants a portion of her tuition returned and for the school to institute sensitivity training.

A fade is a hairstyle popular among African American boys, and Jalyn’s mother said a handful of non-black students at the school wore similar styles without punishment.

Archdiocese’s stance

But Larry Kamer, a spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco, said the school disputes the accuracy of some claims in the complaint.

“We do not agree with her representation of the facts,” he said. “We will look forward to setting the record straight.

“Catholic schools value and teach respect of individuals as whole people,” Kamer said. “When we hear a claim that someone feels they may have been singled out because of race or any other background, that’s something we take very seriously.”

According to Broussard, when Jalyn walked into school, the principal initially complimented him and his brother — who had a fully shaved head — on their new haircuts. Thirty minutes later, though, she said the school called her and asked her to pick up Jalyn because a teacher said his hair was in a “faux hawk,” which violated school policy.

Broussard said that although she and her husband disagreed with the school, they shaved Jalyn’s hair that night so he could participate in winter-break events. She said that when she attended a meeting at the school the next day, she told officials she believed the policy was flawed and wanted them to take steps to clarify it.

“I said, ‘I’m concerned that you’re not familiar with current conservative African American hairstyles,’” she said. She said the school principal, Teri Grosey, told her the 5-year-old’s hair could have an “undue influence on the school population.”

Broussard said fellow parents told her two weeks later that an eighth-grader who wore his hair in a similar style was not punished. When she asked the school why, she said, officials told her he had a “modern crew cut.”

Bias charge

Jennifer Bezoza, the lawyer representing the Broussards, said she believes the school selectively applied its dress code based on race.

“We think that’s a clear-cut case of discriminatory enforcement of their policy,” she said. “The only real difference between Jalyn’s hair is the texture. That’s a cultural difference that should be embraced and not punished.”

Broussard said she took her children out of the school after communication stalled. After months of confusion over whether the Office for Civil Rights had jurisdiction over the Catholic school, she said, she filed a complaint after lawyers informed her that the school received federal funds through the No Child Left Behind Act.

Now, the boys attend a public school — and Jalyn’s fade is back.

“I think we had to take them out,” Broussard said. “I think that was the message we had to share with our children — that you treat people the same.”