Lavona Batts’ 8-year-old son attended his first day of school at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Academy in Jamaica, Queens, wearing his hair in cornrows. When his grandmother, Joan, picked him up, the principal rubbed the top of the boy’s head and said, “We don’t accept this,” according to Batts’ complaint.
The school’s hair policy says boys’ hair must be worn “neat and trim, no longer than the top of the shirt collar. No designs, Mohawks, pony tail, braids, buns, no hair color.” But in February, the New York City Commission on Human Rights issued a memo clarifying that New York’s laws against racial discrimination automatically protect against discrimination on the basis of protective hairstyles and natural textures like braids, locs and curls, which are traditionally associated with Black people. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill into law in July which made New York the second state in the country to explicitly ban discrimination based on natural hair. Batts’ suit will be the first to test out this new law’s applications.
Oliver Koppell, a former City Council member and acting state attorney general, is the lawyer representing Batts in the case. He told DiversityInc he believes winning this case would set the precedent that schools cannot regulate how children choose to express themselves through their hair.
“The reason for the law, as set forth by New York City Human Rights Commission, is if you look at their memo, that hairstyle is an aspect of identity, and some of these styles are characteristic of African Americans,” Koppell said. “The fact is that hairstyles are important to people. It’s a matter of cultural identity.”
Related Story: New Jersey to Introduce Bill to Prevent Hair Discrimination
Batts enrolled her third grader in Immaculate Conception Catholic Academy last summer after he had attended a low-performing public school. But after Batts was unable to reach Immaculate Conception’s principal to discuss the matter and the school gave her until Sept. 9 to change her son’s hair, she decided to transfer him out before the start of his first full week. She moved him to another Catholic school in the area that did not have restrictions on hairstyle.
Batts’ complaint, which refers to her son as J.B., but who reportedly is named Jediah, says he felt hurt and personally attacked by the principal’s comments.
“Given how important his hair is to him and how he associates it with is personal identity, he interpreted the teacher’s actions as a personal attack against who he is as a person,” the complaint says. “J.B. remarked to both his mother and grandmother that he did not want to change his hairstyle, nor did he have any intention of doing so.”
Batts could not be reached for comment by DiversityInc, but she told the New York Daily News the principal’s comments made her son feel he wasn’t accepted.
“He loves his hair,” Batts told the Daily News. “He feels like it makes him look good; it’s a part of him. He’s a very smart boy. He knows what he wants, and he’s not going to let anyone change his mind about anything.”
The decision to move J.B. to another school after classes had already begun was challenging, not only logistically but also financially. Batts paid a $270 registration fee to enroll her son in Immaculate Conception, as well as $250 for his uniform.
Batts is suing the school for punitive damages and for emotional distress.
While J.B.’s mother worked to find him a new school, his grandmother researched the law and found information regarding the New York City guidance and New York State law.
The state’s law adds hair to the list of traits protected against racial discrimination: “traits historically associated with race, including but not limited to hair texture and protective hairstyles.”
The family then contacted Koppell, whose firm covers cases related to discrimination.
“A big part of our practice is representing people who believe they have been discriminated against,” Koppell said.
The New York laws against discrimination carve out exemptions for religious organizations.
Adriana Rodriguez, the press secretary for the Diocese of Brooklyn, which Immaculate Conception Catholic Academy is part of, sent DiversityInc a statement from the school.
“As a private religious institution, Immaculate Conception Catholic Academy in Jamaica has the legal right to set standards in many areas, including hair,” the statement says. “However, it is the school’s policy to be culturally sensitive and therefore this policy is being reviewed.”
As part of the suit, Batts also is demanding the school dissolve its hair policy. Immaculate Conception’s race breakdown is 46.6% Black, 19.7% Hispanic, 16.6% Asian, 8.7% Pacific Islander, 5.4% multiracial and 3% white, according to Niche.com.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted Wednesday saying his team was looking into the case.
For too long, kids who look like Jediah have been treated as less than because of the texture of their hair. It’s unacceptable, it’s appalling and that’s why we’ve BANNED it in New York City.
My team's looking into this. https://t.co/xeuJdbFU2Y
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) October 30, 2019
Cuomo’s spokesman Jason Conwall told the New York Daily News that the school’s treatment of the Batts family was “discrimination” and “completely unacceptable.”
Koppell argued that even private institutions cannot discriminate on the basis of race, and the addition of hair to the text of discrimination law under the category of race establishes it as a subset.
“Some people have said, ‘Well, these are private schools; therefore, they shouldn’t be affected by this because they’re private schools,” Koppell said. “But the fact is that it’s clear that a private school cannot discriminate on the basis of race. And it’s clear that this statute has been enacted primarily as something of an extension of the protections against racial discrimination.”
When it comes to religious protections, Koppell also said he doesn’t see that exemption applying.
“I’ve never heard anything about hairstyle in Catholic dogma,” he said. “In fact, many of the pictures that I’ve seen of Jesus show him as having long hair.”