Story at a glance
- Some argue that certain high school dress codes are inherently discriminatory.
- An increasing number of protests are being met with success.
- At an Oklahoma high school, protests against a ban on African headwraps led to necessary progress.
“What is that thing on your head?”
That’s what Oklahoma high school student Delanie Seals was asked by her principal in late February 2018 — a question that was just the start of an ensuing battle between the administration and students of Byng High School to be granted the ability to wear their cultural head garments on campus.
A year prior, her classmate Avaunt Brown, a ninth grader at the time, was told by the vice principal of Byng to remove his African headwrap. In the vice principal’s office, Brown was informed that his headwrap too closely resembled a hat and was against school policy. Brown took it off and didn’t wear it for the rest of the school year. Seals was given a similar reasoning in February, but she chose to fight back.
“I told him no, that it’s a part of my culture,” said Seals. “I then explained the history behind it. He googled pictures of women in headwraps and told me he didn’t understand the point of it. He told me I can wear it for that day, but I continued to wear it even after that discussion. His reaction was very rude and sarcastic.”
An inherent discrimination
Dress codes have historically been put in place to keep the school environment a place conducive to learning, but for who exactly? As state and federal policies regarding the rights and treatment of women, people of color and the LGBTQ+ community continue to advance, school dress codes have often lagged behind.
Controversies surrounding these dress codes have increased in recent years, bolstered by the students’ ability to instantly share any acts of their treatment with the world by way of social media. While the enforcers of dress codes say that the guidelines help students avoid distraction, gendered language and shameful punishment have been called out, especially in the case of women of color. In some cases, they are criticized for making students feel sexualized and, in other cases, for attracting unwanted bullying. In one case, a girl’s legs were covered in duct tape to cover the rips in her jeans. In another, a student body president was suspended from school for wearing a skirt that faculty deemed to be too short.
While dress code policies have been known to unfairly target girls, the case is even worse for girls of color. A report from the National Women’s Law Center about dress code violations showed black girls in the Washington, D.C., area are disproportionately cited for violating dress-code policies, a finding that was echoed by the American Sociological Association. Cases of black girls not being able to wear their hair naturally at school, in styles that vary from braided extensions to afros, have been well reported. According to one report by NPR, two girls were warned by administrators that their braided hair extensions were “a distraction” and needed to be “fixed” — and then were told that they would be removed from their extracurricular activities, barred from prom and suspended from school if they did not change their hairstyles.
Making a case for their culture
After multiple visits to the principal’s office in hopes of reaching an agreement regarding their headwraps, Seals, Brown and a third student, Is'Abella Miller, were finally given the green-light — on one condition. Their principal informed the students that they would be able to wear their headwraps if they agreed to show part of their hair.
Four months later, the agreement was revoked and the students were told that they’d only be able to don headwear for religious purposes. The students were denied a meeting with the superintendent, and they continued to wear their headwraps in an act of defiance until they were punished with in-school detention (ISD).
“We’re going to keep them on because it’s a part of who we are and where we come from,” Seals told the principal after being stopped in the hallway. “We felt like we were unfairly grouped with the students who wrote on the walls and started fights with people. The school’s outlook on us was that we were the delinquent kids who wanted to start trouble. We felt that wearing head wraps that day and getting ISD would help us get the attention of the board members and community supporters. We decided to post about it on Facebook and many people seemed very supportive of our decision.”
The students signed up to make their case at public board meetings but were left off the agenda. “The board members are just going to say ‘thank you for your time,’” superintendent Todd Crabtree told the kids.
“I feel like at this point, I'm focusing more on fighting for my cultural rights than I am [focusing on] school, and that's sad,” Miller tells Changing America. “I know some people are like, ‘well, you have to manage both.’ But that's hard. Fighting for something every single day, trying to get in contact with organizations and people who know what's going on to fight for this. The thing is, I shouldn't have to be fighting for this in the first place. It's definitely a distraction — going to in-school detention, getting pulled out of class just to discuss this over and over when it's still going to be the same thing.”
Results at last
The story made regional news after the students spoke with reporters at Oklahoma’s News 4, and their tireless lobbying finally paid off. Miller tells Changing America she, Seals and Brown have been informed by the principal that the headwear policy is officially being changed to allow all headwear to be worn on campus. The new policy will go into effect after the next board meeting, on Dec. 9.
The students’ next goal is to draft a legislative proposal that would make widespread changes to the way all Oklahoma schools address dress code policies.
“Everyone should be able to express themselves ethnically and culturally,” says Miller. “[Wearing an African head wrap] makes me remember where I come from and who I am. And that black is beautiful.”