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JCPS Dress Code Policy Draws Ire From Parents, Students

Cassia Herron braided her daughter's hair into cornrows Wednesday night as the two watched President Barack Obama on TV address the crowd at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

It was a powerful moment, Herron said, to see the country's first African-American president give a speech to a crowd of delegates who earlier this week nominated Hillary Clinton as the first woman ever to represent a major political party as a presidential candidate.

Then, Herron logged onto social media.

Online, she saw a storm of posts criticizing the dress code of Butler Traditional High School. The code bans dreadlocks, twists, braids and cornrows -- the very hairstyle she'd just given to her own daughter, Bella, a Jefferson County fifth-grader.

Herron and other parents, students and residents are blasting the dress code, calling it racist for its intent to ban natural hairstyles worn by African-American students.

Superintendent Donna Hargens said the policy is under review by district administration. Hargens said the policy appears to exclude certain groups of students.

"That obviously concerns me," she said.

William Allen, principal of Butler Traditional High School, is calling a special meeting for Friday to discuss the school's dress code.

The social media firestorm was sparked by a tweet from Kentucky Rep.-elect Attica Scott. Scott's daughter, Ashanti, attends Butler High. Upon learning of the policy at her daughter's school, Scott took to Twitter to disavow the policy. She held a press conference Thursday alongside her daughter and other Jefferson County Public School students.

Scott said she wants the policy at Butler and other, similar, policies she considers rooted in institutional racism to be suspended from all district schools.

"I don't want our kids' hair to be policed," she said.

Hargens said all district schools have been instructed to review their dress code policies. Such policies are approved by School-Based Decision-Making Councils. Hargens said those policies must adhere to district policy.

The district-wide student code of conduct does not specifically mention acceptable hairstyle or length.

Ashanti Scott, who will be a sophomore when school begins next month, said her school's dress code suggests the notion naturally styled African-American hair is "not clean or not neat," due to the policy's language mandating all hair to be "clean and neat" while also banning certain styles worn by many African-American students.

The policy suggests such styles are "extreme" and "distracting." Yet Ashanti considers herself a standout student -- she's on the A and B honor roll.

"My hair doesn't affect my grades, it doesn't have anything to do with my grades," she said.

For Herron, the idea of a school system trying to control her children's sense of identity is upsetting.

As she drove her young daughter to day camp Thursday morning, she tried to explain there are certain schools that won't allow her to wear the cornrows she'd got just the night before.

Her daughter asked why, but Herron, who wears her hair in a tall Afro with trimmed sides, couldn't answer.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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