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Education

Mount Pleasant family says daughter’s haircut by school staff exposes racial bias

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Jimmy Hoffmeyer
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A couple of weeks ago, Jurnee Hoffmeyer got her hair cut by another student on the bus home from school, her father, Jimmy, says.

It didn’t look great.

“Half of her hair was gone off the side of her head,” he said.

Jimmy was mad, he said, but he figured, she’s 7. She’ll be fine.

They went to a salon to get Jurnee’s hair fixed up. She didn’t want it entirely evened out, her father said, because it would be too short. They went with a semi-fashionable asymmetrical cut, he said.

Then, right before spring break, Jurnee came home with hair missing again. This time, Jimmy said she told him, it was a school employee who cut her hair.

Jimmy said that made him really upset. An adult at school had decided for him that Jurnee -- who’s biracial -- should have a haircut, he said, and no one thought to tell him:“No call from the teacher, no call from the school,” he said.

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Credit Jimmy Hoffmeyer
Jurnee Hoffmeyer after a haircut at school that her father, Jimmy, and national advocates, say is reflective of racial biases in education.

Jimmy Hoffmeyer said a district official told him a note would go in the teacher’s file. He said that’s not enough. He wants the teacher suspended.

“If you take something from me, you should have something taken from you,” he said. “It’s bigger than just Jurnee.”

Bernita Bradley, a Detroit delegate to the National Parents Union, agreed.

“We have a million Jurnees,” she said.

This is just one example of the overregulation of black and brown bodies in the U.S. that begins in childhood, Bradley said.

White children with off-kilter haircuts are often met with praise, she said -- comments like, “Oh that is so, like, just funky and courageous, and just vibrant.”

But it’s different for children like Jurnee, said Bradley.

“When Black children do something, it’s ostracized as an issue. Any time they are stepping out of the box, it’s seen as an issue,” Bradley said.

Even if a school staff member had a good reason for wanting Jurnee to get a haircut, Bradley said, the school should notify the parents.

“I don’t care if her hair was set on top of her head like Einstein on a daily basis. It still does not leave any cause for a teacher, or anybody, to say, ‘Come here. Let me cut your hair off.’”

“If a child shows up with lice, I’ve got to call the parents. I can’t cut their hair off because they have lice. If a child shows up with gum in their hair, I can’t cut their hair off,” she said. “I’ve got to call the parents.”

Bradley and Hoffmeyer said they support legislation to protect people from hair-based discrimination and lay out clear boundaries for conduct. Michigan Rep. Sarah Anthony, a Lansing Democrat, is sponsoring a bill she says would do that.

"One of the challenges we face with these types of incidents is that there is a lack of clarity in state law about what constitutes race-based discrimination," Anthony said in an emailed statement about the proposed legislation, called the "Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair," or "CROWN," Act.

"That’s where the Crown Act would come in—in an instance where there is a clear indicator that a child was discriminated against or otherwise mistreated as a direct result of their hair texture," Anthony said.

"I hope the Mt. Pleasant Area School District thoroughly reviews and investigates the circumstances surrounding the incident and considers adopting clear anti-discrimination policies districtwide," she said.

Neither the school district nor the teacher has responded to questions from WCMU News, but at a school board meeting Monday evening, board president Amy Bond said reports of unaddressed racial bias in the district were “inaccurate.”

Bond said privacy concerns prevent the district from directly addressing the Hoffmeyers’ description of events publicly, but that it investigates allegations “in accordance with the law.”

“The board of education and district are committed to the goal of ensuring that all students receive a high-quality education in an environment that promotes fairness, inclusiveness and equity for all,” she said.

Jimmy Hoffmeyer said before her most recent haircut, Jurnee used to love her curls. He said now she doesn’t want to show her hair. “It’s life-changing,” he said. “I’ve never had a child in a traumatic incident before.”

“We always tell her she’s beautiful,” Hoffmeyer said. “She knows that.”

Hoffmeyer and Bradley said they hope the school district will see Jurnee’s haircut as more than an isolated incident. They want the district to use it as an opportunity to identify and confront racial bias.