School responds to hair policy uproar

Mystic Valley Interim Director Alex Dan speaks with the media.


As you may know, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Attorney General’s office has reviewed our uniform policy in response to a parent complaint about the policy’s prohibition on artificial hair extensions. That review included a meeting on Thursday, and has led to a preliminary course of action that is described below.

We wish to thank Attorney General Maura Healey for the productive clarity and guidance provided by her office. In prompting students to focus on what they have in common, our uniform policy is central to the success of our students.

It helps provide commonality, structure,and equity to an ethnically and economically diverse student body while eliminating distractions caused by vast socioeconomic differences and competition over fashion, style or materialism.

The uniform policy compels students to train their attention inward, on character and core competencies that allow students to pursue rich, happy lives.

Mystic Valley’s uniform policy has remained largely unchanged since the school was founded. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the school’s governing body, has reviewed it at least six times in the last 15 years, as part of each of the school’s three renewal visits and for three consecutive years while the school was on conditions.

In each of its reviews, DESE identified no concerns. Our formula consistently delivers top results. Our African-American students have higher MCAS and SAT scores than African-American students from all other districts in the region, and nearly all attend college.

Our dropout and attrition rates for African-American students are not only lower than those in sending districts, but they are lower than Caucasian rates. The role that our uniform policy plays in these results, and those of all our students, is not insignificant.

Of course, despite the vast importance of the uniform policy on the performance of our students, the policy must comport with our long-held commitment, as stated in our parent-student handbook and on our website, to offer the same advantages, privileges and courses of study to all students, regardless of race, color, sex, gender identity, religion, national origin or sexual orientation.

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Some have asserted that our prohibition on artificial hair extensions violates a “cultural right,” but that view is not supported by the courts, which distinguish between policies that affect a person’s natural “immutable” characteristics and those that prohibit practices based on changeable cultural norms.

You should know that we categorically rejected an order from the DESE, which was influenced by media reports, to cease all disciplinary actions associated with our entire uniform policy. We believe that following this directive would have disastrous consequences on our ability to create the structure and equity central to the success of our students, and that it would fundamentally alter the nature of the environment you chose for your children.

Attorney General Healey’s office did not assert the existence of a “cultural right” and, instead, based its opposition to the hair policy on its concern that the policy’s impact may fall disproportionately on African-American students.

To remedy its concerns, the attorney general’s office requested that the school stop disciplining students for violations of three specific components of the uniform policy’s hair section.

The school had already determined, eight months before the current complaint, that we would not enforce the provision against hair that was more than two inches in height, based on productive conversations with members of our community, according to our standard internal complaint procedure.

This change was made well before any outside interest group or government agency raised a concern for the first time earlier this month, that our state-approved policy might be impacting any class of students unfairly. It should also be noted that in cases where a student had a substantiated religious or medical conflict with our policy, the school adjusted its policies to accommodate those concerns.

While we believe there is precedent confirming that our policy would withstand a legal challenge and data showing that we have implemented the policy in an equitable manner, we do not wish to engage in a legal battle that would further divert the focus and energy of our faculty and students, siphoning financial resources from the school and the students it serves.

For these reasons, the board of trustees of the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School has voted to suspend enforcement of the hair section of its uniform policy for the remainder of the school year.

As we undertake our annual review of the uniform policy for the coming school year, we will work collaboratively with the attorney general’s office to make sure that the policy is consistent with our long-standing commitment to the rights of all our students. Mystic Valley remains committed to implementing the mission of the school and all of its underlying principles.


Mother says daughters punished for hairstyles


Update: Jennifer Rosenberg of Howell Communications, an agency representing Mystic Valley Regional Charter School, responded Monday with the policy outlined in the 2016-2017 student-parent handbook. She said hair extensions are prohibited, but braids are not. The school’s hair / makeup policy reads below:

“Students must keep their hair neat and out of their eyes. Students may not wear drastic or unnatural hair colors or styles such as shaved lines or shaved sides or have a hairstyle that could be distracting to other students (extra-long hair or hair more than 2 inch in thickness or height is not allowed). This means no coloring, dying, lightening (sun-in) or streaking of any sort. Hair extensions are not allowed. Hair elastics must be worn in the hair and not on the wrist. No make-up of any sort is allowed. Nail polish or artificial nails are not allowed. Tattoos are not allowed. Students are not allowed to write or draw on themselves. Bandanas or hats are not allowed during school hours. Headbands may be worn, but must be functional in nature and not worn over the forehead. Facial hair is not allowed. Unshaven young men will receive a warning in the first instance and detentions thereafter.”

MALDEN — The mother of twin 15-year-old African-American girls says officials at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School lack sensitivity to diversity after she claims her daughters were punished for wearing braids and hair extensions.

Colleen Cook has filed complaints with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Massachusetts Anti-Defamation League, according to televised reports. Her daughters are named Deanna and Mya.

Other African-American and biracial students who have worn braided hair have been punished with before- and after-school detention for refusing to remove the braids or extensions as well, reports say.

In response, the following prepared statement was released by a representative on behalf of Mystic Valley Interim Director Alex Dan.

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“The Mystic Valley Regional Charter School serves a diverse student population from surrounding communities that include Everett, Medford and Malden, among other cities. The school consistently ranks among the top schools in Massachusetts in MCAS testing, SAT testing and college admissions.  

“We send students from all walks of life, including those of color and those from limited means, to the best colleges and universities in the nation.  One important reason for our students’ success is that we purposefully promote equity by focusing on what unites our students and reducing visible gaps between those of different means.  

“Our policies, including those governing student appearance and attire, foster a culture that emphasizes education rather than style, fashion or materialism.  Our policy on hair extensions, which tend to be very expensive, is consistent with, and a part of, the educational environment that we believe is so important to our students’ success,” the statement said.

School officials were not able to be reached for further comment.


City seeking student sanctuary


LYNN — The School Committee adopted a policy to protect students from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“It would be bad if we turned our backs on these kids,” said Oscar Ross, who has a daughter in Lynn Public Schools who dreams of being both a police officer and a cook. “If we don’t give them the chance to be what they want to be.”

Mary Sweeney, a retired teacher, said that during her career, students had to worry about getting their homework done.

“I never faced situations of kids being deeply afraid,” said Sweeney. “I think with the issues of immigration and ICE — it’s a reality.”

The panel voted unanimously to adopt a policy that affirms the schools are safe and welcoming sanctuaries for all students, regardless of their immigration status. The document said the resolutions are intended to ensure that all Lynn Public Schools students have the same right to a free, public education and will be treated equally.

“The mission of Lynn Public Schools is to maintain a multicultural school community dedicated to the realization of the full intellectual, physical, social and emotional potential of its students,” reads the resolution. “The city is enriched and strengthened by its diverse cultural heritage, multinational population, and welcoming attitude toward newcomers.”

Committee member John Ford pointed out that while he agreed with where the resolutions were coming from, he believed they were only reaffirming what the district already does. Superintendent Dr. Catherine Latham agreed.

“I believe we have welcoming schools and that our teachers are wonderful and welcoming,” said Latham. “We have not had a case where ICE has come into our schools.”

She added that she believes ICE is restricted from taking immigrants into custody at schools and churches.

“Rather than us saying we already do that, we’ll be able to say that we have a policy for that,” said committee member Donna Coppola. “I think it would be a huge reassurance to our students. Let’s be upfront and be what we are — a proud community — and show others that we care.”

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Latham and committee members expressed concerns about a resolution included in the original draft that prohibited federal immigration law enforcement officers, or personnel assisting them, from entering a school building.

“I worry about training teachers not to allow law enforcement to come into the building,” she said.

Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy added that she was “very uncomfortable” with the section of the resolution because it should be recognized that federal law supersedes local law.

“It seems to me that it’s not a valid exercise of a city’s rights in the presence of federal government,” she said.

The panel amended the resolution to state that law enforcement can enter the building, but must remain in the main office until his or her credentials are verified and the superintendent is notified. The vote will be subject to final approval of the language.

Under the policy, the district will not inquire about, record, or request information intended to reveal the immigration status of a student or their family members. They will not disclose private information without parental consent, and staff will refuse to share all voluntary information with immigration agencies to the fullest extent permissible by the law.

All requests for information from a student’s education record will be immediately forwarded to the School Department’s attorney. The motion also noted that the district does not ask for immigration status when families register children for school.

A letter will be sent to parents and staff summarizing the resolutions in simple language. A list of all available resources, including community-based organizations and legal service organizations, will be provided to each student and made available at each school. It will be translated when necessary. Teachers will be trained on the policy before the start of the school year, when they become familiarized with all other policies.

In the next 90 days, Latham will be expected to develop a plan for training teachers, administrators and other staff on the new policy and best practices for ensuring the wellbeing of students, who may be affected by immigration enforcement actions. The plan will be implemented within five months.Legis

A copy of the resolution will be submitted to the Massachusetts Attorney General and to Lynn’s federal, state, and local legislative representatives.

Bridget Turcotte can be reached at bturcotte@itemlive.com. Follow her on Twitter @BridgetTurcotte.


A city of two tales

Hoana Cortez and Robert Miller stand April 17 at a vigil for the two men shot on Exchange Street.

To paraphrase Dickens, it was the best of times and the worst of times in Lynn this week.

The worst was first. An Easter Sunday shooting in Central Square that left one dead and another hospitalized.

Then came the best. Bookended by a Monday night vigil at the shooting site and Thursday night’s gathering at Zion Baptist Church to show solidarity for Prince Belin and remember the late Leonardo Clement, four unrelated events took place simultaneously Tuesday:

Friends of the late Wendy Meninno Hayes gathered to remember a woman who defined her life with charity and friendship; the city Humans Rights Commission hosted a City Hall forum entitled, “Focus on Asian Americans;” the committee behind the successful April 6 kickoff of “Beyond Walls” met to plan the next steps for a downtown revitalization effort that envisions murals and classic neon signs lighting up the city’s center by July; while experts who make a living out of reimagining cities converged on the Lynn Museum and let their imaginations roam free in the “Visions for Lynn” discussion.

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Perhaps the most startling was the Visions discussion. Designers and academics let their minds wander on a long leash and imagined the city’s waterfront becoming a sort of futuristic Venice with canals. They conceived a pedestrian-friendly wastewater treatment plant, the Lynnway Learning Lab — a futuristic high school with rooftop gardens — and a public safety facility doubling as a community gathering place.

Visions and Beyond Walls demonstrate the imagination that is the fuel propelling a new vision for downtown.

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All of this might sound like so much idle speculation by academics and hopeful residents — until state Housing and Economic Development Secretary Jay Ash’s perspective is factored into the equation.

Commenting in the Boston Globe’s Sunday Magazine on April 16, Ash called Lynn one of those “gritty blue-collar North Shore communities that are poised to move up a notch or two or three.”

Ash’s comments merit close examination, especially when they are spotlighted against the backdrop of Beyond Walls and Visions.

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The former Chelsea city manager knows what it takes to revive a city. As the state’s top development chief, Ash joined Gov. Charlie Baker, U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, Mayor Judy Flanagan Kennedy, Lynn’s state delegation and city development officials in creating the LEAD (Lynn Economic Advancement Development) team in November, 2015, to bring federal, state, and local resources to bear on revitalizing Lynn.

His remarks to the Globe are proof positive he feels that commitment is ready to pay off.

By accenting all that is positive about their city, Lynn residents are drawing a map for success and they are narrowing the focus on the city’s problems. Lighting downtown and adorning it with murals and sculpture offers an opportunity to step back and ask, “OK, what needs to get fixed downtown?”

The answer may come in the form of public safety proposals, revamped zoning ideas or other innovations rivaling the ideas offered by the academics who gathered on Tuesday at the Lynn Museum.

During her life, Wendy Hayes helped provide the answer through the selfless charity she showed Lynn residents. A Saugus native with a brilliant smile who died last August, her legacy and memory lives on with friends who knew her as the co-owner with her husband, Rolly, of Rolly’s Tavern on the Square.  

Lynn’s diversity can also provide the answer. More than 10 percent of people who live in the city are of Vietnamese, Khmer and Laotian descent. They built businesses, bought homes and Tuesday’s commission meeting is a first step to giving them the chance to contribute positive ideas.

The great news about positive ideas is that they spur imaginations and generate additional ideas. The energy that filled downtown and the city this week is proof that only imagination defines the realm of possibility for Lynn.

‘It was our duty to stand up for our values’


Averi Kaplowitch, left, and Olivia Schauer.

“She and all her weird Jewish friends” … Olivia

“Is he going to Israel for Christmas vacation?”… Averi

“Is the name of your summer camp Auschwitz?”… Olivia

“Do you live in little Israel?”… Averi

“You go to sleep-away camp, you must be Jewish” … Olivia

“I didn’t think Jews were allowed to go trick or treating” … Averi

These are a few of the questions and comments Olivia and I have heard over the years, sometimes from friends and sometimes from strangers. While these comments struck a chord in us, we never repeated them to anyone, other than to our parents. We didn’t think our friends had any idea that what they were saying was hurtful or offensive. We let it go because we didn’t want to cause waves.  

Lately, however, we have noticed that these comments are happening more often and the kids who are saying them are now older, more mature, and should know better.

A few days before Christmas vacation, I (Olivia) was faced with a very difficult situation. I came across a disturbing picture on social media. At first, I wasn’t sure if I was seeing things correctly. WAS THAT A SWASTIKA … made out of pennies? Why was someone using materials for a chemistry lab to make this vicious symbol of hate? Why would an anti-Semitic image be posted on a site I use every day? Additionally, how could someone I considered a friend post it? And why was another friend of mine in the picture with this symbol on a chemistry lab tray in front of him? I was both confused and uncomfortable.  

I showed the picture to my friend Averi. She was appalled. We were both scared and initially hesitant to get involved. Although we did nothing wrong, we feared we would be blamed and be considered “the school snitches.” We were quickly reminded that as Jewish girls, we could not sit back. We had to speak up. We had a responsibility to make others understand why this act was so hurtful.  

Olivia and I (Averi) pondered how we could make a difference at Marblehead High School and in our community. Our parents suggested we contact the Anti Defamation League (ADL) and ask them about bringing in a program that would teach diversity to the entire student body. Our school principal introduced us to Team Harmony, a club which focuses on promoting a harmonious school climate. Students work with other students to teach acceptance and equality. We learned the ADL had a program called A World of Difference.

Averi and I researched The World of Difference program. This program trains faculty and students about how to deal with issues of discrimination of all types. Armed with the training, students will be well-equipped to educate their peers. While the program seemed ideal, we ran into one problem, funding! There simply wasn’t enough funding to cover the cost of the program. Our parents, members of the community, local businesses and the Marblehead High School PCO  came together to raise over $7,000 in a matter of a few weeks. Our dream would become a reality!

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With the ongoing support of Marblehead School Superintendent Maryann Perry, the Marblehead Police Department, Principal Dan Bauer and Team Harmony Advisors, Meredith Reardon and Candice Sliney, Olivia and I were able to bring the ADL to Marblehead High School. The ADL came to MHS in September of 2016 to kick off The World of Difference Program.

Team Harmony’s two advisors attended a training during the summer and 30 students from MHS received an intense training on three Sundays in October. Team Harmony is now using their newly acquired skills to educate other students at Marblehead High School. Averi and I are optimistic that something good would come out of this terrible experience. Since December of 2015, our community has encountered additional acts of anti-Semitism and bias. Swastikas have been found in classrooms, on basketball courts, on bleachers, windows and sidewalks in neighboring towns as well. Unfortunately, we continue to hear more anti-Semitic and bias remarks, both in our community and in other communities throughout the Commonwealth.

Olivia and I believe it was our duty to stand up for our values, speak up against those who are against us, and speak out against all forms of anti-Semitism and hate.

Most importantly, Averi and I hope that by addressing these issues and taking action, other people will learn from us and become less afraid to speak up for what is right. The two of us have and will continue to make a world of difference in our community and the world. We will continue to fight against all forms of discrimination!

Olivia Schauer and Averi Kaplowitch are Marblehead High School juniors.

Malden reflective of Community N’ Unity


MALDEN — The city has evolved into one of the most diverse in Massachusetts over the past 15 years and has made major strides toward community unity and inclusion. But there’s still work to be done, according to a Boston-based consulting group’s report.

Working with Strategy Matters of Boston, city and public school officials brought together residents for a series of meetings titled, Community ‘N Unity. Strategy Matters of Boston helped the city coordinate the meetings and released a report on its findings.

At the meetings, residents told stories of their personal experiences and those of their families and friends living in Malden, which led to the report.  

The city is already addressing one key finding of the report: Increasing racial and cultural awareness among municipal employees. The city Human Resources Department has plans for cultural competency and awareness training for all city employees.

“The best part of the whole process is that everyone has the same goal: Bring Malden closer and keep everyone working to make our entire community a welcoming and vibrant one for all of our residents,” said Malden City Councilor at large Debbie DeMaria.

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Mayor Gary Christenson announced the creation of the Mayor’s Task Force on Racial Harmony which is expected to develop strategies and goals for the coming year and beyond.

“The report identifies the group’s findings and includes Malden’s strengths as well as areas for improvement,” said Christenson, adding, “(The report) also offers suggestions and recommendations for promoting community cohesion and strength.”

One of the Strategy Matters of Boston report’s findings focuses on local public school efforts to increase diversity. Close to 70 percent of Malden’s public school population is of African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic descent, while the majority of teachers and staff are Caucasian.

Malden’s interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. Charles Grandson IV is the first African-American to hold Malden’s top education post.

“It was an excellent series of forums and we were thrilled with the response citywide. We heard a lot of good experiences and got a lot of information presented,” said DeMaria, a former Malden School Committee member.

Spreading love in Swampscott

Pictured is a “Love Your Neighbor” sign in the yard of a home in Swampscott.

It’s interesting and inspirational to see the “Love your neighbor” sign movement spread across Swampscott. The signs on lawns still deep in winter slumbers are inspiring because they represent a home-grown effort to motivate townspeople to deepen their love for people down the street and around the world.

The interesting element about the “Love…” movement is the potential for the signs to prompt town officials, Town Meeting members and residents across Swampscott to take stock of the state of inclusion and diversity in their community.

The signs urge anyone viewing them to love people representing a broad spectrum of backgrounds and experiences. Cynics viewing the signs might be prone to suggest “Love your neighbor” displayers are Swampscott residents who are feeling a little guilty about a perceived lack of inclusion or diversity in Swampscott.

People who like the signs and who put them on their lawns are sure to suggest they represent a growing national trend to resist “us versus them” mindsets and to make efforts at the local level to tear down barriers separating people.

Swampscott is showing signs of love

How inclusive is Swampscott? There isn’t one answer to that question. A good place to find a start to an answer is town government where diversity in town offices and public safety departments is fairly easy to assess.

A housing study commissioned by town officials a year ago also offers clues to an answer. The study outlined housing production goals including finding ways to develop more diverse housing stock in Swampscott “to meet the needs of a changing demographic profile in the town.”

In expanding on that objective, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council report concluded: “While it is still a majority-white population, dropping from 96.6% to 93% between 2000 and 2010, during this time, Swampscott experienced notable increases in the number of Asian (169%), Hispanic (94%), and African-American (48%) populations. While these minority populations are still small in number, collectively making up 7% of the total population (compared to 3.4% in 2000), they represent a growing residential base … “

This is interesting information. But what does it mean to Swampscott and the question of diversity? Does “Love your neighbor” mean town residents need to simply embrace neighbors from different backgrounds? Or does it mean residents need to work collectively with the aid of town government and the Housing Authority to take steps to increase demographic diversity in Swampscott?

By linking demographics closely to housing production, the Council in its report pointed to the Housing Authority as an agent for change in Swampscott capable of helping to promote diversity.

Another agent for change is Town Meeting. It is the purest forum for democratic discussion and perhaps the best opportunity for frank and public discussions about diversity.

Maybe the “Love your neighbor” movement can blossom into a series of late-winter and early-spring discussion groups aimed at expanding on and deepening understanding about the message conveyed by the lawn signs. That product of those discussions could inform Town Meeting discourse and even plant the seeds for efforts to promote local diversity.

Swampscott is showing signs of love

Beth Balliro of Swampscott places one of her “Love Your Neighbor” signs in front of her house.


SWAMPSCOTT — Since Valentine’s Day, signs have been sprouting up all over town, encouraging inclusion and diversity.

The signs read: “Love Your Neighbor. Your black, brown, native, immigrant, disabled, religiously different, LGBTQ, fully human neighbor,” and are displayed on residential lawns.

Beth Balliro, 43, a Swampscott resident and mother of three young children, bulk-ordered 250 signs after seeing one on a Burrill Street lawn on her way to the train station. The artist commutes to Boston, where she teaches at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

“The big picture here is that I think after the unfoldings, after, even during the election cycle, but certainly after, there were a number of people in this community that were having intense emotional responses and one of those people was my neighbor, Shayne Spaulding, and the other was my mom, my neighbor on the other side,” Balliro said.

The signs were initially created by a Minnesota minister around the time of the presidential election. The signs became so popular in the woman’s hometown that she subcontracted a printer and they are now available online, according to Balliro.

Following the election, Balliro said people in town weren’t sure if it was safe to express their emotional response. She was picking up her son from preschool and encountered another mother, who was concerned about the way people were being treated after the travel ban, referring to the executive order President Donald Trump signed temporarily restricting entry to the United States from seven Muslim-majority nations. A federal judge has since blocked the order.

She said she was trying to figure out what to do in response to those feelings when she saw the sign near the train station. Valentine’s Day seemed like an appropriate time for a collective community “spread the love kind of spirit,” Balliro said.

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“I think for people to reappropriate Valentine’s Day as a way to affirm a more humanist love,” Balliro said. “It’s also sort of playful and I think we all need a lighter side right now. Everything has seemed for many, very dire. And I think in that way, activating Valentine’s Day was sort of a soft edge to a heavy problem.”

Balliro said she spoke with her neighbor, along with people involved in other group projects in town. The idea for the signs was posted on Facebook, which caught the attention of local groups, For the Love of Swampscott, SPUR and S.U.R.E. (Swampscott Unites, Respects and Embraces), who spread the post.

From there, Balliro said her email box lit up with hundreds of responses. She hooked up with a local printer, and added the word “native.” People were able to purchase and pick up the signs at her home. She’s sold the 250 she ordered and is directing others online to buy their own at northernsun.com.

“The point of this is to spark conversation, so I think in that sense, it’s been successful,” Balliro said. “It’s not a perfect sign. It’s not a perfect gesture. So, some of that conversation was around inclusion and exclusion.”

Balliro said some have felt that the sign should also say “white” to be inclusive, while others felt that it shouldn’t because the point was to underscore people who are particularly targeted at the moment. She felt the signs may be a risky gesture at first, and was not expecting the progressive response they received. She said one woman who didn’t have any lawn space wanted a sign for inside her home.

Balliro doesn’t want the focus to be on any one person for the success of the signs. She said she had an initiative, but every other person had the intention and it took a little bit of a catalyst to make something happen.

“There’s a sense that what we stand for, the very core of what many of us think is our national identity, which is inclusion and immigrant experience, and sort of open arms, global open arms is under siege, under threat right now,” she said. “So for that, I think this made people feel like at least we can state our philosophy and reaffirm our core belief even if it isn’t being demonstrated at the federal level. We can affirm it here at home and say this is the kind of home I want. This is the kind of neighborhood I want.”

Gayla Cawley can be reached at gcawley@itemlive.com. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley