CHARLOTTE, N.C. — With the addition of three simple words, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools cleared the way for students, especially Black and brown children, to wear their hair how they want without fear of being bullied or discriminated against by their peers.
The 2021-2022 Student Code of Conduct has been updated this year to include protections for students’ hairstyles, a spokesperson for CMS confirmed to WCNC Charlotte. The current handbook prevented students from discriminating on the basis of appearance, but a recent high school graduate spent her senior year lobbying that the policy did not go far enough.
“This is an issue that transcends just appearance that plays into a larger context of marginalization that Black and brown students face,” said former student Kiersten Hash.
Hash pointed to cases across the country where students were punished or ordered to change their hair or protective hairstyles to conform to standards that may not be inherent to how their hair naturally grows.
Locs, braids, twists, knots, and other styles are often viewed in the workplace and at school as less professional, multiple studies have shown. Hash argued before the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board earlier this year that the school district should implement a version of the CROWN Act to permit students to feel free to wear their hair in its natural, authentic state.
The act, whose acronym stands for "Creates a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair", is gaining momentum across the country. It prevents natural hair discrimination. In the past two years, 13 states have passed versions of the CROWN Act; dozens of municipalities have implemented versions on it on the local level as well.
North Carolina lawmakers introduced statewide legislation in the most recent session but the bill did not gain traction. On the local level, the protections are seeing more success. Both the cities of Raleigh and Durham saw ordinances go into effect this month that prohibit hair-based discrimination in schools and workplaces.
Hash, who still has siblings in CMS and a parent who is in school leadership, said she wanted to see the changes not only for them but also for the thousands of Black and brown students who fear retaliation or punishment for wearing their hair a certain way.
“It’s so important that children are able to be themselves,” Hash said. “You want to foster the most efficient learning environment for a student and when you’re targeting certain aspects of their identity, it’s always going to leave negative ramifications.”
Hash’s work caught the attention of school district leadership, including Superintendent Earnest Winston, who invited the teen to sit on the committee that would work to revise the code of conduct this year.
In addition to the protections from bullying, Hash said she also wants to see CMS pass a policy that prevents a student from being disciplined for wearing certain hairstyles.
The update goes into effect at the start of the academic year.