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State civil rights department investigates in-school haircut in Mount Pleasant

Jimmy Hoffmeyer

The Michigan Department of Civil Rights spoke Thursday with members of the administration at a Mount Pleasant elementary school as part of an investigation into whether a haircut given to a 7-year-old biracial student by a school employee amounted to race-based discrimination.

A member of the library staff at Ganiard Elementary School cut Jurnee Hoffmeyer’s hair last month in an apparent effort to even it out after another student took scissors from a classroom and cut a chunk out of her hair on the bus, her father and the school district have said.

The employee who cut her hair and a teacher who knew of the plan could face discipline from the school district.

But the state’s investigation focuses on a bigger issue, said Vicki Levengood, a spokesperson for the civil rights department.

“We know from a century of experience or more that differences in hair from what the dominant culture believes is appropriate often leads to discrimination that’s based on race,” said Levengood. “There is certainly cause for concern that this was a violation of her civil rights.”

Levengood said even if the library employee thought she was helping Jurnee and thought the girl wanted the haircut, it could still be a civil rights violation.

“Because someone might not consciously think that they’re discriminating doesn’t mean that they did not discriminate.”

The civil rights department supports the passage of a bill called the CROWN act (a backronym for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair”) that Levengood said would protect people from hair-based discrimination.

The bill’s sponsor in the Michigan legislature, Rep. Sarah Anthony, a Lansing Democrat, said investigations in cases like this one can be difficult because of the lack of clear boundaries for appropriate conduct.

“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.

Levengood said whatever the civil rights department’s investigation finds, the aim is not to be punitive.

“We want to educate, and we want to train,” she said. “We want to avoid anything like this in the future.”

Brett joined WCMU in February, 2021, as a general assignment reporter. He was previously the health reporter at WXXI Public Broadcasting in Rochester, N.Y., and has filed stories for National Public Radio, IEEE Spectrum, The Village Voice and other outlets.
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