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Family blasts South Dakota school hair length policy that would have required child to cut locks

Administrators at O’Gorman High School told the parents of a 14-year-old boy that his shoulder-length dreadlocks were a policy violation.
From left, Derrick, Braxton and Toni Schafer at a sporting event in Sioux Falls, S.D.
From left, Derrick, Braxton and Toni Schafer at a sporting event in Sioux Falls, S.D.Toni Landeen Schafer
/ Source: NBC News

Parents in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, are raising concerns about a Catholic high school’s dress code policy that would have required their Black son to cut his shoulder-length dreadlocks.      

Last week, Toni Schafer, the mom of 14-year-old Braxton, said the assistant principal at O’Gorman High School approached her during a school open house and raised concerns about the length of her son’s hair. Braxton has worn his hair in dreadlocks since he was about 8 years old, she said.

The assistant principal called it a policy violation, noting O’Gorman’s uniform policy that requires boys’ hair to not be “touching the collar,” according to the school’s website. Schafer told NBC News that this was the first time anyone in the O’Gorman Catholic Schools system had raised concerns about the length of Braxton’s hair before. He has been wearing shoulder-length dreadlocks since his enrollment in the private Catholic school system in 2018, she said. 

Although Schafer didn’t specifically call out the school for discrimination, she did note that “their reason for him cutting his hair had nothing to do with the policy,” later adding, “He’s always been an outsider.” 

The school’s current uniform code specifies that boys’ hair length must be above the collar. Braxton’s hair extends down to his shoulders.

Braxton Schafer, 14, has worn his hair in locs past his shoulders since he was about 8 years old.
Braxton Schafer, 14, has worn his hair in locs past his shoulders since he was about 8 years old.Courtesy Toni Landeen Schafer

Schafer said she reached out to the school’s principal, Joan Mahoney, to discuss the policy and why cutting her son’s hair was not an option for the family. In an email, she explained that the length of Braxton’s hair had just as much if not more cultural significance as the style.  

“The important part of that cultural piece is the length of the lock, not the actual lock itself,” she told NBC News. 

Schafer said that after meeting with school administrators Friday afternoon they still could not find a suitable solution and that she was told the option of a “man bun,” or updo hairstyle alternative, was still considered a policy violation. 

“This is about my son. I want him to be able to be comfortable,” Schafer said, noting that although the term “expel” was never used, she felt it was implied. 

Schafer said she asked the school’s administrators if Braxton could stay on through the rest of the semester to finish his football and marching band season. The school eventually agreed, saying that because Braxton’s hair length had not been addressed in junior high, they felt he should be allowed to stay at the school and continue his activities without having to cut his hair. 

Despite the small victory, Schafer said the ordeal was “really hard” for her family and that they “never set out for any of this.” 

“The only person being hurt in all of this and truly affected to the core is Braxton,” she said. 

In a statement to NBC News, a spokesperson for O’Gorman Catholic Schools said the school system’s dress code is re-evaluated every five years with input from all stakeholders, and that in 2018, 80% of parents said the dress code requirement about male hair length should stay in place. 

The spokesperson said the dress code allows for “culturally appropriate hairstyles such as dreadlocks” and that multiple other students have dreadlocks that still meet the policy. The spokesperson added that it is common practice for administrators to visit with students at the beginning of the year about their hair length. 

“Despite representations to the contrary, at no time did school administrators tell the parents that if the student did not cut his hair he would have to leave or be expelled,” the statement reads. “The meeting with the parents ended with the understanding that further dialogue would occur in the hope of finding a resolution that would allow the student to remain at our school.” 

The incident comes amid recent waves of state legislation to ban discrimination against natural hair. In July, Massachusetts became the latest of more than a dozen states to pass its own version of the CROWN Act, which stands for “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” into law. The House of Representatives passed a federal version of the anti-discrimination bill in March, only to stall along party lines in the Senate. 

In 2021, an attempt to ban hair-based discrimination in South Dakota went nowhere in the state’s Legislature. 

Reynold Nesiba, a state senator representing Sioux Falls and one of the sponsors of the bill, said after that receiving feedback from the Senate State Affairs Committee, the bill became more focused on hair discrimination in employment. The bill stalled again in 2022. Nesiba blames the bill’s failure on the makeup of the Legislature, which he said does not accurately reflect the racial demographics of the state. 

“It’s important for Sioux Falls and it’s important for South Dakota to make clear that we’re welcoming of everyone here,” he said. 

This story first appeared on NBCNews.com.