Local private school discriminates against student

By Dorothy Inman-Johnson
Special to the Outlook

Imagine a student being called to the principal’s office and punished with threats of being expelled because of her natural hair style. Hard to believe, but it happened to Jenesis Johnson, an eleventh grade Black student at North Florida Christian School here in Tallahassee. According to Jenesis’s mother, her daughter had worn her hair in a natural hair style, off and on, since she was a seventh grader. At a time when most young Black girls seem to favor Eurocentric hair styles with long, straight hair weaves, Jenesis demonstrated a real sense of self and her heritage by choosing to be different and wear her hair natural at a predominantly White private school.

She was very comfortable with her natural hair style; at least, until she was singled out by a teacher in front of her classmates by asking, “How much longer are you planning to rock that hair style?” She was subsequently called to the principal’s office, probably due to the teacher’s complaint, and ordered to get rid of the natural hair style or find a new school to attend for her senior year. Jenesis later said in an interview that it really hurt that she was singled out and penalized because of her natural hair style. And many in the community were astounded that the school chose to openly discriminate against this child for simply being herself, a beautiful Black girl.  The school used language from its student handbook that “no faddish or extreme hair styles” were allowed, in order to justify withdrawing Jenesis’s invitation to attend the school in her last year of high school. However, there was nothing faddish or extreme about a Black child choosing to wear her hair in the natural style and texture God gave her. She was well groomed with a large afro. Further, a fad is a temporary style or trend. The fact that Jenesis had favored her natural hair style off and on for almost ten years is proof it was no fad.

Therefore, if a Black girl’s afro hair style is to be considered faddish and extreme by North Florida Christian School, then, shouldn’t long, straight hair styles be considered faddish for White girls attending the same school? After all, both hair styles are natural for each of their races or ethnicities.

And, yes, it was discrimination; though there is some disagreement on whether a case based on federal anti-discrimination laws could be successful against a private, religious school. So I consulted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida with two questions.
1. Are private, religious schools exempt from federal, anti-discrimination laws?

2. If the school receives any form of public funding, is it required to comply with laws governing actions by other publicly funded institutions?

According to Nancy Abudu, Legal Director of the ACLU of Florida, the answer to question #1 is no, unless some form of public funding is received. Her answer to my first question, also, answered the second.  Her opinion was that private schools receiving public funds can be subject to federal laws banning discriminatory practices. Florida’s Governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature strongly support school choice and publicly funded school vouchers for private and religious school students. So if public tax dollars have found their way into the North Florida Christian School’s funding stream, they have violated federal anti-discrimination laws based on race and national origins.

So far, Jenesis and her family have stood their ground and refused to be bullied by the school into rejecting her heritage in order to be allowed to return to school next year. I hope they will take the next step and seek legal counsel in filing a discrimination lawsuit against the school. No child should be subjected to the treatment Jenesis endured by adults who should have known better. A lawsuit would not only demand fair treatment for Jenesis, but will ensure the school is put on notice that every child’s rights must be valued and protected, regardless of the race. By taking action, her family can make sure their child receives justice, and that no other children will suffer this type of harmful treatment by being made to feel less than because they choose to honor their cultural heritage.
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