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A Lynn charter school has banned do-rags, and students are fighting back

Jaeqhan McClain, a KIPP Academy Lynn Charter School senior, ties his do-rag as he leaves school on Wednesday. (Spenser R. Hasak)

LYNN — KIPP Academy Lynn Collegiate male students are urging their school to allow them to wear do-rags, which they say is a part of their culture and are used to keep their hair down.

But the dean of students and culture says the do-rags are not a part of the school’s student dress code and could be seen as reflective of gang culture.

Gisnael Silva, 17, a junior at KIPP Academy, said he and other male students of color have been given in-school suspensions, or been taken out of class, this week for refusing to take off their do-rags. Some students who refused to stop wearing their do-rags haven’t been back to class since Monday, he said.

He said he believes the ban on do-rags is recent and is not in the handbook, and students plan to make their case to school officials on Friday afternoon for why the headgear should be allowed. Silva said some students started protesting the ban on Monday and plan to wear their do-rags until the rule is changed and they can be free with their culture.

Silva said students are trying to show the charter school that do-rags are part of who they are — he said he can’t really do much with his hair and needs a do-rag for his waves and dreadlocks.

Traditionally, he said they’re used to keep hair down, such as dreadlocks and waves. He said the ban is hurting his culture, as he can’t do much with his hair. In addition, he said girls of color wear headwraps at the school for a similar purpose and the male students feel boys should be able to as well.

“I just feel like it’s a part of our culture that they’re trying to take away,” said 18-year-old Jaeqhan McClain, a senior at KIPP. “They’re saying we’re affiliated with gangs.”

An email from Shauna-Kaye Clarke, dean of students and culture at KIPP Academy Lynn Collegiate, was sent out to the student body on Sunday regarding the ban.

Clarke said do-rags are not a part of the school’s student dress code and cannot be on students’ heads while they are in the building and strings cannot hang from their pockets.

“Over the last few weeks, there has been some resistance to removing do-rags when asked to,” Clarke said in the email, which was obtained by The Item. “To reiterate our rationale, they are a direct component of school to prison pipeline and unfortunately, they are also reflective of some gang culture. And they can recede your hairline. That’s not setting you up for success.”

Clarke said school officials get that students “want 360 waves” but that there are other ways to achieve that look.

Silva, McClain and other students say other teachers and administrators have also given similar reasons for why they shouldn’t wear the do-rags in school.

McClain said he’s been wearing a do-rag during his entire time at KIPP, but it just seems to be becoming an issue now. Silva said he and McClain tried to respect the rule and wore the do-rags around their necks and were also told to take them off — the reason given has always been that it’s gang-associated, he said.

Silva said accusations that wearing a do-rag is a direct component of school to prison pipeline or is reflective of gang culture is letting the students fall victim to that perception.

“Just because there’s a correlation doesn’t mean it’s true,” Silva said. “Because we look a certain way, we shouldn’t be treated a certain way or depicted a certain way.”

Caleb Dolan, KIPP Academy Lynn executive director, said the school allows religious dress and culturally relevant head scarves, but does not allow students to wear hats, do-rags or headphones during school.

Dolan said do-rags have never been allowed but a clarification to officially add a section on do-rags and bandanas in the dress code/handbook was made in December.

He said students will have an opportunity to make their case on Friday, during a forum scheduled by Nikki Barnes, KIPP’s managing director of secondary schools, where the students will be given an opportunity to share proposed changes to the dress code.

“We are excited to see students have the opportunity to advocate effectively for change,” Dolan said. “We have lots of kids who wear culturally relevant or religious headgear and we want to make sure that’s something they feel comfortable to do in our school. The kids get a chance to advocate for that on Friday.”

Dolan said no students have received a suspension for wearing do-rags. He said there could be a misunderstanding, as no students were taken out of class for wearing do-rags, but may have been disciplined for cursing or having a rude reaction to being asked to take them off.

“Students who did not comply with requests to get in dress code did have conversations with their parents and the school leadership and while waiting to have those conversations, they were provided with their classwork and lunches.”

Dolan said kids always understandably want to test boundaries so kids were wearing them in the fall and got redirected to get into dress code. He said the situation is a real natural part of high school kids figuring out what issues they want to push at and that school officials are just trying to work with the students through this.

Regarding the email sent by Clarke, Dolan said the tone was off and has led to a lot of the frustration the kids are feeling. He said the dean of students, referring to Clarke, realizes it was not strong communication, and he recognizes that the email felt inconsistent or like stereotyping. He said that was not the intent, but was certainly how it was read.

Dolan said the email also wasn’t an accurate description for consequences so kids got upset about that, which makes sense. In the email, Clarke said school officials would be contacting families for a suspension hearing for students who actively refuse to remove do-rags when they enter the building and throughout the day.

Dolan said the uniform policy at KIPP and dress code is a means of creating a shared team and family and is aimed at decreasing some of the pressures about dressing to fit in. A simple uniform is meant to create a common identity at the school.

At KIPP Boston, he said some students are also in the midst of advocating for a dress code change, but did not know what the proposed change is. He said those students are presenting their proposal to the school’s Board of Trustees in the spring.

Dolan said school officials are open to the dress code change in Lynn.

“We’re going to listen to students’ concerns and proposals for changes to the dress code and evaluate what’s best for the school, but (we’re) definitely excited to see what they come up with,” Dolan said.

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