NC charter school group tweaks controversial hair policy. Parents say it’s not enough

By Ivey Schofield

A charter school group in southeastern North Carolina agreed Thursday to tweak its controversial hair policy for boys, but parents say the change is not enough.  

Classical Charter Schools of America, which enrolls 2,500 students in grades K-8 at schools in Leland, Southport, Wilmington and Whiteville, has faced pushback since administrators told families in March that boys must cut their long hair. 

Native American students, along with those of other ethnicities, said long hair was part of their culture and that the schools’ request amounted to discrimination.   

The school group’s board of trustees voted unanimously on Thursday to change some wording in the grooming policy. Under the ruling, boys can continue to wear their hair in buns or braids – which they had been allowed to do since the start of the coronavirus pandemic when the schools relaxed enforcement of the policy. 

The grooming policy originally said boys’ hair “must be neatly trimmed, off the collar, above the eyebrows, not below the top of the ears or eyebrows and not of excessive height.” The board agreed to eliminate the words “must be neatly trimmed” and replace them with “must be clean.” 

“I think this addresses the issues that we’ve been concerned about and parents have expressed concern about,” board chairman Robert Spencer said. “And I think it allows us to move forward and do what we’re primarily here to do – educate kids – and do so in an unrivaled way.”

About a dozen people attended the meeting, with some carrying signs that said “educate don’t assimilate.” Some families said the board’s action fell short. 

“I think it was a step of acknowledging that there were some changes that need to be made,” Ashley Lomboy said after the meeting. “But that did not go far enough to make us feel welcome at the school.”

Lomboy, a member of the Waccamaw Siouan tribe whose son attends the Leland school, had asked the board to respect her family’s heritage. 

“I challenge you to be an ally to make the change,” she said. “Nothing short of a policy that clearly guarantees my son, and all the native boys, the right to be fully who they are at this school will be adequate.” 

School administrators had said they planned to begin enforcing the hair policy again for the last quarter of the school year. 

The American Civil Liberties Union spoke out in protest, along with the Lumbee and Waccamaw Siouan tribes, saying the policy violated students’ civil rights and federal Title IX rules that prohibit sex-based discrimination in education.

The board scheduled the meeting for Thursday after talking last week with Lomboy and N.C. Rep. Jarrod Lowery, a member of the Lumbee tribe and brother of the tribe’s chairman, John Lowery. 

Initially, the meeting was set for June 20, a few weeks before the start of the academic year. Parents said that wouldn’t give them enough time to decide whether to keep their children enrolled or find other schools. 

Like all charter schools in North Carolina, Classical Charter Schools of America receive money from the state but do not have to adhere to all of the rules and regulations of traditional public schools. 

This isn’t the first time Classical Charter Schools of America has faced allegations of discrimination. In 2016, the families of three students filed a lawsuit against the Leland school for its dress-code policy that required female students to wear skirts and prohibited pants. 

Three years later, a federal appeals court ruled that the school violated Title IX, upholding a state court’s decision. The case could go before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Baker Mitchell, the school’s founder, did not respond to a request for comment.

Lomboy said she has begun searching for a new school for her son. “Our culture is strong,” she said, “and we’re not going to sacrifice that anymore.”

Tammie Jump, a member of the Lumbee Tribal Council, showed a reporter her grandson’s report card, which showed a 95 in math and 101 in spelling. A teacher commented that he was a pleasure to have in class. 

“How is his hair affecting his learning?” Jump asked.

About a dozen people attended a meeting on Thursday to urge Charter Schools of America to change its controversial grooming policy that prevented boys from wearing long hair.
Photo by Ivey Schofield