Can A Private School Receiving Voucher Money Ban a Student Over Dreadlocks?

By Arianna Prothero — November 30, 2018 5 min read
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Two heavyweight civil rights groups have filed a complaint over a small private school in Florida that turned away a 6-year-old male student on his first day of class because of his hair style. The encounter was filmed by the boy’s father on Facebook and received international press coverage.

On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union and the legal arm of the NAACP filed a complaint with the state saying the school, A Book’s Christian Academy, violated the student’s civil rights. Although private schools have wide latitude over which students they admit and dismiss, the groups argue that because the school receives public aid from one of Florida’s voucher programs it must be held to certain antidiscrimination rules.

This case is another in a string of controversies over school dress codes that have gained major media attention in the past few months. And it highlights the blurring lines in public oversight for private schools that accept state aid in the form of vouchers.

A Book’s Christian Academy, located north of Orlando in Apopka, Fla., was founded over 30 years ago and focuses on teaching Biblical and patriotic principles, according to its website.

In addition to outlining rules on chewing gum and using cell phones, the school’s handbook states that all boys’ hair “must be a tapered cut, off the collar and ears. There are to be no dreads, Mohawks, designs, unnatural color, or unnatural designs. No combs or net caps.”

This is discriminatory, claim the ACLU, the ACLU of Florida and the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, because these rules target hairstyles predominately worn by African-American students and there is no legitimate education value in the ban.

“Moreover,” the complaint continues, “school hair policies targeting natural Black hairstyles have received increasing national attention as acts of discrimination.”

The groups further argue in their complaint that the Florida Tax Credit scholarship—a voucher program funded through tax breaks to corporations instead of directly by the state—that the parents used to pay for their son’s tuition requires participating schools to comply with antidiscrimination provisions of the federal Civil Rights Act.

The groups are asking that the Floria education department or another state agency investigate the school and block it from receiving any more money through the state’s voucher programs until the school changes its policies.

Clinton Stanley Jr., the young boy who was turned away from A Books Christian Academy, is now enrolled in public school, according to the complaint.

Can They Do That?

Whether private schools participating in voucher programs can deny admission to certain groups of students—such as those with disabilities or those who identify as LGBTQ—has been a point of heated debate among education advocates and policymakers since Betsy DeVos became the U.S. education secretary. DeVos is a long-time advocate of vouchers and other school choice policies and has pushed for creating a federal voucher-like program.

Private schools aren’t allowed to discriminate based on race—at least if they want to keep their tax-exempt status under federal law, and even then, experts say, schools would be on legally thin ice to have blatantly racially discriminatory admissions policies.

But beyond that, private schools, even those that receive public aid through various types of voucher programs, have broad control over their admission polices. And if a private school participating in one of Florida’s voucher programs dismisses a student, there is little legal recourse for parents looking to challenge that decision.

Related Story: 'There Is No Oversight': Private-School Vouchers Can Leave Parents on Their Own

Just over 1,800 private schools participated in Florida’s Tax-Credit scholarship voucher program in the 2017-18 school year.

It should be noted, however, that controversies over dress code—in particular those seen as racist or sexist—are not limited to the private-school sector. It’s an issue that has embroiled traditional public schools and charter schools as well.

Do Dress Codes Target Girls and Students of Color?

Among the latest episodes that have garnered national attention in the press and on social media, all of them had to do with how dress code policies affected girls and students of color:

  • A video that went viral instructing students on dress codes at Marcus High School in Flower Mound, Texas, was heavily criticized because it featured only girls breaking dress code;
  • A video of the principal of Oakville High School in St. Louis apologizing for telling female students they should not show off their bodies because they will distract the male students also circulated on social media at the beginning of this school year; and
  • A video viewed millions of times on social media showed a 6th grade African-American girl crying after she was forced to leave the classroom at the Christ the King Parish School in New Orleans for having braided hair extensions.

The fundraising website Change.org reported having more than 400 open petitions against individual school dress codes at the beginning of this school year, according to a recent story by Education Week’s Sasha Jones.

A Book’s Christian Academy in Florida is not alone in enforcing a strict policy for hair. A recent Huffington Post analysis of Florida’s newest voucher program—which is reserved for students who have been bullied in their public schools—found that 20 percent of schools had policies banning either dreadlocks, braids, and “gothic” or “progressive” hairstyles, to list a few examples.

The Books, a married couple who founded and run the school, told local media outlets that the vast majority of their students are black.

“Obviously, I’m not a racist,” Rev. John Butler Book, the school’s director, told WESH-TV, an NBC affiliate. “In our school our song is, ‘Jesus loves the little children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.’ But we try to uphold certain ... standards and certain degrees of order that allow us to maintain a school.”

In a blog post on the ACLU’s website, Clinton Stanley Sr., the father of the 6-year-old who was denied admission, described the experience as humiliating.

“I was bewildered that the all-white staff in charge of a predominantly Black school would have the audacity to shame something so closely tied to Black identity,” he wrote. “The encounter at school was the first time it ever crossed CJ’s [Stanley Jr.] mind that anyone might consider him unworthy based on his hair.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.