Durham parents, students want culturally inclusive dress code

Posted February 16, 2016

School of Creative Studies student Assata Goff, wearing the gele.
Credit Jamaica Gilmer / The Beautiful Project

On the first day of Black History Month, Durham School of Creative Studies (SCS) students Natalia Artigas, Assata Goff and Naima Harrell showed up to school with their heads wrapped in geles, a colorful fabric many black women wind around their hair as a sign of cultural pride.

"We were all very excited," Artigas said. "We all looked beautiful in our head-wraps."

Then, Artigas says school administrators told some of the students they had to take them off. As headgear, administrators said, the geles violated the student dress code.

"And that's when everything started," Artigas said.

The students' parents took issue with the way the incident was handled. They say the dress code should have a cultural exemption for apparel like the gele, and that the headgear restriction as it stands is not consistently enforced.

"There are other students within the school that are wearing things on their head in different fashions, yet this group and these girls had to remove it," Artigas' mother, Oseye Laing, said.

A group of about 20 parents and community members rallied outside the SCS the following Monday afternoon in support of the students' decision to wear the gele to school.

On Feb. 11, parents spoke out at a Durham school board work session.

"We reject the notion that they [students] must notify administration before expressing their culture," said Assata Goff's mother, Afiya Carter, "and that they were causing a disturbance by expressing themselves in a nonviolent way."

Carter explained that the gele holds a place of deep significance in African-American culture.

"The gele or head-wrap is a symbol of pride," Carter told the board. "We have pictures of me when I was very young, like three years old, with a gele on. We have pictures of my mother with geles on. We have multiple pictures and memories of celebrating ourselves and celebrating our culture with our heads covered."

Parents demanded the board revise the dress code with community input to include a cultural exemption.

"We do believe that it is possible to include cultural expression in the wording of the dress code policy and that it can be done in a way that is very inclusive and effective," said parent Joy Harrell-Goff, whose daughter Naima Harrell arrived at school wearing the gele.

The board stood by SCS principal Renee Price's decision to enforce the dress code.

"We really thank our principal for upholding our current policy, which doesn't have an exemption for cultural attire," said board chair Heidi Carter.

But they acknowledged the need for change.

"This certainly did not happen the way we would have wanted it to happen," Durham superintendent Bert L'Homme said. "But on the other hand, I think Ms. Price and her staff, once it was discovered that this was happening, have done an excellent job of turning it around to a very, very powerful learning situation."

DPS officials say Price and her administration allowed the students students to hold an event at school where they taught other girls how to wear the gele.

Students and parents say the issue goes beyond the incident, and have started a hash-tag on social media: #itsbiggerthanaheadwrap.

"What the girls allowed us to do was to open the door and really get to the heart of what this issue is with the dress code policy, which is an issue of equity and inclusiveness," Joy Harrell-Goff said in an interview after the meeting.

"There is some institutionalized racism and white privilege that have to be addressed in order for us to really get to the root of how this policy should be worded---and why it's upsetting not to have the freedom to express our culture in a way that's not described as disruptive or divisive or needing permission," she said.

The school board assigned a task force that is already revising the student code of conduct to look into how the dress code could be changed to include cultural exemptions. The new student code of conduct is planned to go into effect on July 1.

This report first appeared on WUNC/North Carolina Public Radio as part of its education coverage. Jess Clark is the 2015-16 Fletcher Fellow focused on education policy reporting. The Fletcher Fellowship is a partnership between WUNC and UNC’s School of Media and Journalism funded in part by the Fletcher Foundation. Articles produced by the Fletcher Fellow are considered to be "open content” that others can republish with permission.


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  • Mark Colyer Feb 16, 2016
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    only Muslims are allowed to do that, they get special privelages.

  • Mark Colyer Feb 16, 2016
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    Only Muslims are allowed to do that, they get special priveleges in this country.

  • Janet Ghumri Feb 16, 2016
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    Let's not forget the 'Nudists', guys! They have rights, too.

  • Sonja Yagel Feb 16, 2016
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    Public school is no place to parade diverse heritage. School should be a place of learning. If they must do this, set aside one day a year to show your culture heritage, that means ALL cultures, where we like them or not. This is the only fair way or it should be no heritage cultures at all for anyone.

  • Sonja Yagel Feb 16, 2016
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    View quoted thread

    Well said

  • Janet Ghumri Feb 16, 2016
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    Are these same parents and students willing to allow the Muslim women wearing their hajabs?
    Asian Americans in traditional dress?
    Christian students with a cross and bible?
    American Indians in cultural dress?
    Hindi students in a Sari/headwrap?
    Children of military families wearing Military items?
    LGBT students wearing items that identifies their rights? The list would never end. Period.

    How far can we go, in order to accomadate the Cultural identity for each and every one? Fighting for what is important to one group, opens the door for acceptance of all groups cultural heritage dress and symbols. Also, keep in mind, this is SCHOOL, they are there to learn, not recruit. Continuing to nonconform pushs the school board towards UNIFORMS as the only option It is imperative the students learn tolerance, and when they enter the work force, they will need to conform to the standards of the professional dress code for their work place.

  • Larry Price Feb 16, 2016
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    Nice sombrero you're sportin' there, Will...

  • Will Sonnett Feb 16, 2016
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    No, no, no, this is a GREAT idea that has no repercussions. We should all celebrate our "culture", no matter how many generations removed from it we are. We are not Americans, we are hyphenated Americans, it fosters diversity and diverity is good. Now all males of Scottish decent can wear their kilts, and certainly they would want to be "authentic". Students with some Native American ancestry should be allowed to don leggings and loin cloths when they want to express their cultural heritage. Girls should be allowed to come to school topless, if that can be proclaimed part of their cultural history. There would be no end to the diversity that students could express. No, I see no problem here, unless we mean to allow some to express their "culture" and others are denied that right.

  • David Bunn Feb 16, 2016
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    So have EVERYONE where the same thing. No flags or symbols. No underwear showing, no cultural dress. Even it out that way. School is a place to learn, not a place to shove your culture into everyone else's face. A strict dress code is the way to go.

  • Sam Adams Feb 16, 2016
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    View quoted thread

    It absolutely could offend someone. I certainly would not automatically assume that no one is offended by this as it seems these days everyone gets offended by something. As a black man even I will admit those who would find this offensive will be labeled racist if they even raised their concerns about those wear Gele's. That is certainly not fair. This and issues like this are really a two way street and we all need to acknowledge this regardless of which side of the street we are standing on. I know many always bring up the example of the confederate flag, as you have, but for some it really is a symbol for their heritage and to them there are no racist feelings behind it. To others, its only a symbol of racism.

    In the end, allowing students to wear items like Gele's will most certainly make some students feel excluded. While I have no issues with them whatsoever I can certainly understand difficult situation the school board is in