By Ivey Schofield
When 7-year-old Edward Chavis learned about the cultural significance of long hair in the Lumbee tribe, he refused to have it cut again.
“It’s my warrior braid,” said Edward, a member of the tribe headquartered in Robeson County. “Nobody cuts it.”
But Classical Charter Schools of Whiteville, where Edward is in second grade, is making him choose: Cut his hair or leave.
Edward is among several male students at Classical Charter Schools of America, which operates four schools in southeastern North Carolina, who have been told they are out of compliance with the schools’ hair policy, parents say. The policy calls for hair to be off their ears and collars.
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The schools, located in Leland, Southport, Wilmington and Whiteville, say the students must cut their hair by March 29, when spring break is over, before returning for the fourth quarter.
Several families, along with the Lumbee tribe and the American Civil Liberties Union, are pushing back, saying the policy is discriminatory and violates students’ civil rights and federal Title IX rules.
“They are treating us wrong,” said Tammie Jump, Edward’s grandmother and a member of the Lumbee Tribal Council. “We just want equality. That’s all.”
On March 16, the tribal council unanimously passed a resolution that says forcing Native American students to cut their hair is “in an effort to strip them of their cultural identity while showing dominance over them,” The Robesonian reported.
On Monday, the ACLU wrote a letter condemning Classical Charter Schools of Leland for telling Logan Lomboy, a 6-year-old first grader and member of the Waccamaw Siouan tribe, that he must cut his hair.
All school year, Logan has worn his long hair in a bun to comply with the school’s policy. But on Feb. 20, the school’s headmaster, Laurie Benton, told Logan’s parents that his hair needed to be cut, according to the ACLU.
Three days later, the school’s founder, Baker Mitchell, visited the campus and complained about boys wearing “man buns.” Afterward, the school changed its policy to include man buns as considered “faddish” and therefore prohibited, according to the letter.
“Logan’s hair is an extension of who he is,” Lomboy said in the letter. “Without his hair, he will lose part of his heritage. Native Americans have been wearing their hair long since time immemorial.”
N.C. Sen. Danny Britt and Rep. Jarrod Lowery, both Republicans, also wrote a letter Monday to Classical Charter Schools of Leland expressing their “significant displeasure” at the school’s decision regarding Logan.
“We are going to be taking a long, hard look at how this was handled,” they wrote, “and we are looking closely at what we can do going forward.”
On Tuesday, Classical Charter Schools of America defended its hair policy in a press release, calling the complaints “trumped-up charges.”
“The ACLU seems more interested in creating controversy than resolving it,” Mitchell, president and CEO of The Roger Bacon Academy in Leland, which manages the four charter schools, said in a press release.
The charter schools, which receive money from the state but are not beholden to all of the rules and regulations of traditional public schools, have faced controversy before.
In 2014, the Wilmington Star-News filed a lawsuit against Charter Day Inc., the former name of Classical Charter Schools of America, saying the organization did not follow the state’s public records law regarding salaries, debt and contracted services. The newspaper ultimately dropped the suit in New Hanover County.
In 2016, the families of three students filed a lawsuit against the Leland charter school for its dress code that prohibited female students from wearing pants, requiring skirts instead.
A judge in the U.S. District Court for Eastern North Carolina ruled in 2019 that the school had violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment but not Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination.
Three years later, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the school did violate Title IX, upholding a state appeals court’s ruling.
The case could go before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mitchell told the Border Belt Independent on Tuesday that meeting every student’s needs is a balancing act.
“Over 2,500 students have freely chosen to attend one of our four schools knowing our rules and the high standards to which we aspire,” he said. “As can be seen, however, balancing one parent’s concepts of high standards with another parent’s concepts of denial of rights while achieving fairness to all can be a challenging and difficult undertaking.”
‘Part of our heritage’
Critics say hair policies dictating the length of boys’ hair are reminiscent of the 1800s, when the U.S. government forced Native American children to attend boarding schools in an effort to eradicate Indigenous culture by shaving their heads and prohibiting traditional clothing.
“You can’t take braids from us,” Jump said. “That’s a part of our heritage; that’s a part of our history. You’re trying to rip that away from us and kill the Indian.”
Lomboy filed a grievance with the Leland school on Feb. 23. On March 10, she received notice that the school’s board of trustees had denied the grievance. She appealed, but it was denied again.
“A 6-year-old has no place thinking less than himself or thinking there’s anything wrong with him because of his long hair,” Lomboy said. “He should be supported, and he isn’t.”
Mia Chavis, Edward’s mother, also filed a grievance on March 19. It was later denied.
“Do you not believe this act is unbelievably detrimental to my son? Do you not believe that the value of his education would be diminished due to being distracted, feeling vulnerable, not to mention how other children would react?” Chavis wrote in the grievance letter shared with the Border Belt Independent.
The school’s board of trustees is scheduled to meet on April 27 to consider the grievances and appeals.
Some parents say they are considering legal action. Others are looking for new schools to send their children – a tough decision, they say, because of the charter schools’ high test scores.
At Classical Charter Schools of Whiteville, for example, 66.7% of students were proficient in science in the 2021-2022 school year, compared to 50% in Columbus County Schools, 59% in Whiteville City Schools and 62% in North Carolina.
But some say inclusion and safety are more important.
Sasha Gilchrist, whose son is a fifth grader at Classical Charter Schools of Whiteville, said she plans to file a grievance. She said she had gotten a phone call about her son’s long hair two years ago but decided not to cut it.
After getting a call this year, Gilchrist said she cried. Her son’s hair has cultural significance, she said, because of his Jamaican heritage.
“It’s a lot on me,” she said. “I want my child to be accepted.”