Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright of Brooklyn helped draft the recently-passed state Crown Act, which would protect Black people who are disproportionately singled out for wearing natural hairstyles. When Wright helped formulate the law, she fully expected it to apply to Catholic schools. However, after Governor Andrew Cuomo signed in the law back in July, it hasn’t been enforced in at least 14 of New York City’s Catholic schools. While an Upper East Side salon was recently fined $70,000 for discouraging its Black employees from wearing natural hairstyles, many Catholic schools haven’t been held accountable for upholding hair bans.
“No cultural preferences will be allowed, such as boys with braided hair,” said one handbook from Christ the King School in the Bronx, which caters to elementary and middle-school students. St. John’s School, also in the Bronx, prohibits “corn rolls” in their handbook, even though the appropriate spelling is “cornrows.”
Eleven other schools in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx also spelled out a ban on natural hairstyles, often calling braids a “fad” or “inappropriate” for boys. Only three schools reached by the Daily News said they didn’t enforce restrictions anymore.
The bans fall into legal loopholes that might keep these schools safe from the new city and state rules, said David Bloomfield, a professor of education law at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center. The state Dignity for All Students Act, which monitors discrimination in schools, includes the caveat: “Nothing in this article shall … apply to private, religious or denominational educational institutions,” while the city human rights law exempts any “religious corporation incorporated under the education law.”
“They’re just exempted because they’re religious institutions and can set whatever rules of decorum they wish, no matter how discriminatory or racist,” said Bloomfield.
Last month, the Catholic school hair bans became an issue for one Queens mother named Lavona Batts. She sued Immaculate Conception Catholic Academy in Jamaica, Queens for ordering her 9-year-old son to get rid of his braids or leave the school. She invoked the city and state hair discrimination law.
Both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo condemned the school’s policy as “unacceptable” and promised action. However, city officials have been cautious thus far, partly because of the Catholic schools’ ambiguous status under city law. The city Commission on Human Rights, which enforces discrimination law, offered educational materials and training to Immaculate Conception after Batts’ lawsuit, however, the school rebuffed the city’s offer, and directed officials to the Brooklyn Diocese.
A spokesperson for the Brooklyn Diocese, John Quaglione, said the diocesan superintendent “requested that all of our academies and schools closely examine their hair policy.” Unfortunately, this still hasn’t made significant change within the Catholic schools still upholding the hair ban.