Seriously, Don’t Touch Our Hair!: NWLC Files Amicus Brief Supporting Students Challenging Race-Based Discipline and Harassment

We’ve said it time and again: stop taking kids out of class for petty reasons, dress codes are bad, and don’t touch our hair. Now, we’re saying it again in support of three Black and biracial children in Minnesota fighting unequal treatment and a hostile learning environment in their charter school. 
On September 10, 2021, NWLC and our firm partner Debevoise & Plimpton led an amicus brief in the District of Minnesota, on behalf of 32 additional civil rights and public interest organizations in support of the students in the case. The students are represented by Nichols Kaster and Public Justice. In our brief, we urge the court to allow the case to continue, as the students are challenging a public charter school that treats Black students differently through how they handle discipline, treat students’ hair and cultural heritage, and enforce dress codes.  

The Case 

For years, Duluth Edison Charter Schools (DECS) has perpetuated a learning environment that was and continues to be hostile to Black students. The three plaintiffs—former students—experienced a harmful learning environment at DECS.  

DECS administrators knew about white students hurling racial epithets at Black students and staff making disparaging comments about Black families but chose not to address and prevent these harms by taking appropriate actions with other students or staff for these racist acts, including through discipline. In fact, DECS administrators actively advised school faculty to ignore incidents when white students used the “N-word” at school—something that happened at DECS often. Yet, when Black students pointed out racism or defended themselves against physical assaults,

DECS officials were quick to write these Black students up, remove them from class, or even suspend them. In a particular display of cultural ignorance, a DECS teacher cut a Black student’s locs without warning or consent. 

DECS also failed several times to protect Black girls in the same way they protected other students. For example, DECS punished a Black/biracial girl for defending herself against three harassers and singled her out for dress code issues, causing her to lose class time while white students who violated the dress code were able to remain in class. 

Despite clear evidence of race discrimination in the way that Black students were treated at the school, DECS has now asked the district court to throw out the lawsuit without a trial. 

Our Brief 

In support of the students’ civil rights claims, our brief explains three crucial points: 

  1. Adultification bias often leads educators to discipline Black students more often and more harshly for behaviors they would typically overlook or minimize with white students, leading to unequal educational opportunities. Adultification bias is when people see Black children as less innocent and in need of care than white children. This racial and gender bias can lead educators to discipline Black students, especially Black girls, more often and more harshly for normal things kids do by labeling behavior as “disruptive” or “disrespectful.” Black students lose class time when they are punished more than white students, which can lead to feeling less engaged in school and make Black students less likely to graduate from high school.
  2. Schools discriminate against Black students based on their race when Black students are mistreated because of how they wear their hair. For many, Afrocentric hairstyleslike dreadlocks or locs—are an expression of Black identity and culture. The styles can also take a lot of time and dedication to maintain. If a school leader would never cut off a white student’s ponytail, they should be equally opposed to cutting off a Black student’s locs. A lack of this understanding can lead to race-based discrimination and the school’s complicity in humiliating and disrespecting Black students in ways that affect their ability to learn. When a DECS teacher cut off one of the plaintiff’s locs without his consent, she failed to understand the psychological harm of that act.
  3. Schools often discriminatorily enforce dress codes against Black girls due to race- and gender-based stereotypes. Dress codes often target girls by setting strict requirements for stereotypically feminine clothing, like skirt length and exposed undergarments. Because of this and adultification bias, educators are more likely to police and single out Black girls for dress code infractions. This was the case for one of the plaintiffs who, as the only Black girl in her class, was the only student forced to leave class to change for something as silly as the design of her undershirt—even though her teacher did not have the authority to ask her to change and had never done that with white students who did not comply with the dress code. In addition to lost class time, rigid enforcement of dress codes can damage students’ self-esteem, psychological wellbeing, and sense of belonging in school. On the flip side, students perform better in school when they feel good about themselves. Black girls, and all students, need dress codes that foster positive feelings about their bodies and make them feel welcome in their school.

When schools don’t address racist incidents while singling out Black students for harsh discipline, they create a racially hostile environment and make Black students feel unsafe and unwelcome. We hope the court agrees and allows current and former students to hold DECS accountable and have their day in court. 

Case Update

We have exciting news of a victory within the case! In June 2022, the District Court of Minnesota unsealed an opinion it filed in March 2022, where it denied DECS’s request to effectively dismiss the case. This means the court is allowing the case to move forward to trial.

Although the attorneys on the case, Public Justice and Nichols Kaster, will still have to bring it to trial, the Court found that at this stage, a reasonable jury could conclude that DECS had a custom and practice of deliberate indifference to racial harassment and discriminatory discipline, engaged in disparate treatment of Black students, and perpetuated a racially hostile learning environment. The Court also acknowledged the ample evidence in the record demonstrating how DECS “did not treat racism with appropriate seriousness, and instead downplayed, minimized, and even ignored the serious nature of the racist comments by treating them ineffectively as ‘learning opportunities.’”

We are thrilled that the students bringing this case will have their day in court!