Headgear Policy Turns Heads: School Committee Faces Challenges in Determining Updates to School Handbook

By Taylor Giuffre-Catalano

Governor Charlie Baker joined 17 other states with similar protections, and signed the Crown Act into state policy on July 26. The policy– which was enacted with the intent of preventing discrimination of persons based on their natural or protective hairstyle– was inspired by twin sisters who were disciplined by their charter high school under the premise of policy violations for wearing their hair in braids with long extensions. Following the enactment of the Crown Act, employers and school districts were advised to review and update their nondiscrimination policies to meet compliance.

The Revere School Committee took on the issue of Crown Act compliance at their recent meeting on September 20th. The discourse was opened as Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Dianne Kelly, expressed concern regarding the “headgear policy,” pointing out the “high school handbook in particular.” She noted that, “based on the reading of the law,” the policy she cited in the high school handbook was, in fact, “in violation of the law.”

“My main concern,” explained Dr. Kelly, “is that one of the pieces that [the handbook] included was that students were not allowed to wear headgear, which would imply that they cannot wear durags.”

The conversation then opened to members of the committee, who were challenged with finding a solution to the handbook policy that did not infringe upon the Crown Act.

One of the primary concerns surfaced by the School Committee was a lack of referential materials, such as a landmark case or direct guidance from Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), by which they could reframe the handbook language.

Committee Member Stacey Rizzo opened, explaining: “Our policy doesn’t say anything about if you wear a hat, or if you don’t wear a hat.” She continued by expressing her interest in “meeting with a few students to look through [the handbook policy].” She expressed that the current policy was “too wordy,” but “doesn’t say anything about hats.”

Dr. Kelly concurred, noting that “an adjustment to the handbook language, suggested by the high school principal, was rejected by [the School Committee] in June.” Dr. Kelly explained that the language of the current handbook read that “no headgear is allowed.” As a result of this, she raised her concern that “that piece… is in violation of the law.”

Ms. Rizzo rebutted: “Regardless of what is in [the handbook], we have to tread water carefully.” She explained that until MCAD delivers a recommendation, or future plan on how to address the Crown Act, it has to be taken “case by case.” She explained her concern, citing a need for “more guidance” on the issue in regards to altering the handbook with specificity to hats. She believed the current policy, written by Revere High School principal Christopher Bowen, was sufficient until the district heard from MCAD.

Committee Member Susan Gravellese voiced her opinion, articulating,“I think that at this time, we should review [the handbook language] and maybe think about rewording what we have.” She noted that the hat policy revision was rejected in June of 2021, but that the committee has since gotten feedback from students that they “wanted to wear the hats.”

On the legal end of things, Committee Member Aisha Milbury Ellis stated: “Right now, it’s a matter of interpretation.” She explained the need to make sure the district policy, as well as the handbook language, used “clear” language. “Once we have more guidance,” Milbury Ellis noted, “we can think about amending it to be compliant.” Milbury Ellis additionally raised the idea that guidance could also come from “a [legal] case decision,” even prior to MCAD’s formal recommendation.

Milbury Ellis recommended that this concern was deferred to the policy subcommittee, who could “take this task on specifically.” She noted her willingness to complete research in regards to this concern, and recommended her fellow members follow suit to ensure “that this policy is compliant.”

Committee Member Michael Ferrante then petitioned to send the Crown Act concern to the subcommittee for further review. Ms. Rizzo added that the district should “follow the Crown Act as it is right now.” As a result, the committee unanimously agreed to undertake these concerns with more scrutiny in subcommittee, with the eventual intent to amend the language to comply directly with the Crown Act, once further legal guidance was provided.

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