Backlash after Chicago school says four-year-old boy can’t wear braids

Ida Nelson says that the school policy that won't allow students to wear certain hairstyles should be changed

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Four-year-old Jett Hawkins wanted a cute hairstyle. His mother, Ida Nelson, was happy to oblige, braiding her son’s hair so that he could show it off to his teachers and fellow students at Providence St. Mel preschool on Chicago’s West Side.

As reported by Block Club Chicago, Hawkins’s day didn’t go as planned. The little boy’s mother was instead asked to take his braids out, saying that they violated the school’s policy which forbids students to wear braids, locs, and similar styles.

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In a Facebook post, Nelson shared her story, saying that the policy seemed to discriminate against its students of color, despite the fact that the school is predominantly Black.

“Imagine paying $1683 a month for your children to attend a private school so that they can be educated without discrimination (Providence St Mel is a primarily Black school ) only to receive a call from the dean explaining that the new braid style that brought your son joy is unacceptable and is not tolerated based on a 30 plus year old rule inspired by the spirit of assimilation,” Nelson wrote on her page.

Please advise on how I should proceed with this issue.

At #ProvidenceStMel , in 2021 we STILL believe…that black boys…

Posted by Ida Nelson on Thursday, March 11, 2021

In fact, per Block Club Chicago, Providence St. Mel is a K-12 predominantly Black school established in 1978 that has earned a stellar reputation by sending 100% of its graduates to four-year colleges. But according to a copy of the school handbook as obtained by Block Club Chicago, it has a set of restrictive mandates on appearance that prohibits everything from earrings (on males), nail overlays on females, and even “high-gadget” watches and metal-studded bracelets.

Some of the responses to Nelson’s post sided with her, especially after she also revealed that in a conversation with the school’s principal, she was rebuffed about any policy changes and was offered a refund if she wanted to take her son and other children out of the school.

Nelson says that the school’s Black principal, Timothy Ervin, told her that it “doesn’t look good on his boys, does not believe that braids nor locks are apart of Black culture and does not believe that hair discrimination is a factor effecting the Black community.”

Ervin did not respond to Block Club Chicago’s request for comment.

Other parents, given the success of the school’s students over the years, believe that Nelson knew the school’s policies as laid out in the handbook and has the option to take her son elsewhere if she doesn’t agree with them.

A response on Nelson’s post from a user named Gus Gordon provided another perspective.

“This is a tough topic and I’m glad that you brought it up! While I fully understand your stance, as somebody that served in the military where the uniform standard is strictly enforced (to include haircut regulations) I understand the point of uniformity,” he posted. “On the other end of the spectrum, I understand that hair has nothing to do with potential. To go a little deeper, there are many disciplines, standards, and/or regulations that causes us discomfort which we may not agree with yet we have to conform to out here in this real world. I think that there is a valuable life lesson embedded that extends beyond expression. Just my opinion, but I get yours.”

Nelson, like other parents who responded said that while they love the school’s history of excellence, its policies need to better reflect the times. Even if she takes her children out of the school, Nelson still wants to work to change the school’s outdated policies.

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“Braids and locs are considered inappropriate [because] when they see our Black boys with those hairstyles, they automatically assume they are troublemakers, in a gang, up to no good, just because of the way they have their hair,” Nelson told Block Club.

“Why is it acceptable to tell Black children in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood who already have so many other obstacles to overcome how they can and cannot express themselves?”

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