Five parents asked the Durham school board Thursday night to let their daughters wear African head wraps to school.
The girls had worn the wraps to the School for Creative Studies on the first day of Black History Month. School staff told them to remove the wraps, which they said violated the district’s dress code.
“The gele is a symbol of pride,” one mother, Afiya Carter, said, referring to a specific style of head wrap from Nigeria. “It’s generational. We have pictures of me at three years old with a gele on. We have pictures of my mother with a gele on.”
A committee reviewing the Durham Public Schools Code of Student Conduct presented its progress at the meeting. The board expressed interest in adding an exception for head wraps. The committee will discuss the possible revision over the next month.
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School board Chairwoman Heidi Carter said she was glad the concerns were raised while the committee is still finalizing the dress code. She has received over 200 e-mails about it — more than any other issue since she’s been on the board, she said.
The dress code currently prohibits “hats, caps, hoods, sweat bands and bandannas or other head wear worn inside school building.” But the principal may make accommodations due to a student’s religious beliefs or medical conditions.
Joy Harrell-Goff, another mother, said in an interview that the policy should be “carefully addressed and reworked.”
“Cultural expression can mean a lot of things,” she cautioned. A policy must still ensure that the clothing is “not malicious or vulgar in any way. Because there is cultural expression that is threatening and harmful.”
Harrell-Goff does not, however, believe the girls’ head wraps constitute such a threat to the school community.
“What exactly was distracting?” she asked. “Their confidence?”
The parents also questioned whether or not the school’s Positive Behavior Intervention Support plan was followed.
Oseye Laing, another of the mothers, read the plan’s belief statements to the board, which say the school “seeks to be an environment where instead of controlling people, we seek to enhance creativity ... instead of uniformity and practice we seek to evolve a collective vision of excellence.”
“If these belief statements and these values were being modeled by the administration and enforced,” she said, “I think this would be a different conversation.”
Pan African Pride Mondays
Superintendent Bert L’Homme commended Principal Renee Price at the board meeting Thursday for “an excellent job turning this around into a powerful learning experience.”
The principal met with the girls last week and announced the start of Pan African Pride Mondays. This past Monday, the first of three planned for Black History Month, students were encouraged to wear “African attire (clothing, head wraps, etc.)” and learn how to tie a head wrap before school or during lunch.
But one of the girls, 10th grader Natalia Artigas, said the event was hastily put together and didn’t make up for the school’s initial reaction.
That same Monday, a group of parents and other supporters demonstrated outside the school cafeteria.
Harrell-Goff emphasized that she did not attend to attack the school or principal. “I was there to restore my child and her sense of self-confidence and pride,” she said. “It took a lot of work for me to assure her that she hadn’t done anything wrong.”
“We all have our own ways of doing things that make us unique,” Carter said, “but information about our differences is only valuable to the extent that we are able to be allies to one another around those differences.”
“There are a lot of women of color in our school, and we should be able to represent where we came from,” Artigas said.