Above: ELHS student Carolyn Hall.
An East Lansing High School student was told by a teacher Wednesday that her headwrap wasn’t necessary for cultural or religious purposes and violated the school dress code, according to her parents.
According to Michelle Hall, her daughter Carolyn, who is black, was told by English teacher Patrick Murray that she is forbidden to wear her head wrap to school.
For women of color, the head wrap holds significant cultural importance. Originating in sub-Saharan Africa and later imposed onto slaves by slaveholders, the head wrap has evolved to be a “helmet of courage signifying absolute resistance to the loss of self-definition,” wrote Cornell scholar Helen Bradley Griebel
For the Hall family, the fact that Carolyn was called out during Black History Month is especially offensive.
“Hats and scarfs have frequently been permitted in the past, even by my students and she's even worn her ethnic headwraps MULTIPLE times. Sadly, Mr. Murray chose yesterday to try to belittle her in front of her peers! Which we will NOT stand for! We believe the entire situation was one that was rude and malicious as an educator! Action MUST BE TAKEN!” Ms. Hall wrote.
Ms. Hall shared her story through the Black Lives Matter Lansing Facebook page.
District School Board Trustee Nichole Martin responded on Facebook that Mr. Murray is a longtime Special Education teacher and “well-respected track coach.” She stated that: “All students deserve to be treated with respect while teachers are expected to adhere equally to codes of conduct set forth by school policies.”
The East Lansing High School student handbook states that “no hats or headwear are to be worn in the school building during the school day except for religious reasons.” “Headwear” is not defined in the handbook. (Update: ELi has learned that the most recent version of the ELHS student handbook does not mention head wear of any kind in the guidelines on appropriate dress.)
Just before noon today, Acting Superintendent Dori Leyko released a statement saying, "We deeply regret that this occurred....We recognize that, as a diverse campus, students demonstrate religious, cultural, and other beliefs of significance in a variety of ways, including in the clothing they wear." She added, "The administration and teacher have both communicated our sincere apologies to the student and family." Principal Fletcher followed up by sending the statement to high school parents (see PDF).
Last fall, a group of 60 high school students in Florida fought for the right to wear headwraps or dashikis. They created Black Girls Wrap Wednesdays and asked other students to wrap their hair in support. Eventually, the principal allowed women to wear headwraps with parental permission. The permission requirement was later dropped after further protest.
Similarly, parents fought for their daughters’ rights to wrap their hair in Durham, North Carolina last March.
ELi will update this story as more information becomes available.
Updates: Mr. Murray provided a statement on February 17, 2017; we reproduce it in full here. At noon on February 16, 2017, the sentence "The administration is investigating the situation and will be issuing some communication later today, said Gail Gillengerten, Administrative Assistant to Acting Superintendent Dori Leyko" was removed and information regarding the superintendent's statement was added, along with a link. At 1:40 on February 17, 2017, we changed the information about Mr. Fletcher's letter's distribution; it went out to high school parents (not district parents, as we had reported).