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Mom objects when 4-year-old son is not allowed to wear braids at school

Ida Nelson says she expected more from her son's predominantly Black school.
/ Source: TODAY

One Chicago mom is fighting back after her 4-year-old son's school told her that his braids were a dress code violation.

When Ida Nelson's preschooler, Gus Hawkins IV, affectionately known as Jett, asked her to put his hair in braids earlier this month, she happily obliged.

Jett attends Providence St. Mel School, an independent school in the West Side neighborhood of Chicago that has a predominantly Black student body, the mom of four told TODAY. It has a "good reputation," she said, with all of its graduating seniors being accepted into a four-year university or college since 1978.

"(Jett) was so excited, he wanted to go to school and show the teacher because that's what 4-year-olds want to do — show his friends and his teachers his cool hair," Nelson recalled.

Jett Hawkins, 4, wearing braids in his hair.Ida Nelson

Nelson also attended Providence St. Mel. She said that she was aware of the school's hair policies from her time as a student there, but didn't realize they existed and were enforced some 20 years later.

"I said, 'We still have policies related to Black hair in 2021, as an all Black school? I'm really shocked about that,'" she told TODAY of the conversation with the school. "We have progressed, we have so much more information. ... I thought surely this school would understand the trauma associated with policing Black hair and absolutely not have a policy like that."

To Jett's dismay, she said, she decided to remove the braids and put his hair in a ponytail, which she said prompted another call because it was also a dress code violation. Nelson added that Jett previously wore the braids while in virtual classes, but no one said anything.

According to a copy of the student handbook that Nelson shared with TODAY, braids are not permitted along with several other hairstyles, like dreadlocks, twists and high-top boxes or fades. The principal of the school, Tim Ervin, confirmed to TODAY that braids are not allowed for male students.

Nelson said she took her concerns to the president of the school, who directed her to Ervin.

"I asked him what was inappropriate about it, could it be a distraction? And he said that it could be, and I'm like, 'To who? He's 4.' His reply was, 'This is my preference,'" she said. "That also was like a double stab in the heart, that a Black man told me that the hairstyle was inappropriate."

Ervin told TODAY that the intention of the rule is not to target Black hair. "It's just one of those things that we have a preference and choose to have that as one of our policies," he explained, adding that the rule has been in place since 1978.

Jett on his first day of school.Ida Nelson

After that conversation, Nelson said, she felt like changing the hair policy was "a dead issue" with the school, so she decided to take her story public on social media.

"I knew that a lot of people could identify with this story because I have had my own personal traumas, my daughter has had her own personal trauma behind what it means to be told that you are not enough, starting with your hair," she said.

Since then, Nelson said numerous alumni have contacted her and shared how the school's hair policies have affected them. She said the tone of the messages is generally, "We support you. We are so happy that finally someone is able to get them to listen because we have felt unheard for all of this time."

According to Ervin, the school hadn't received any comments about the hair policy before Nelson went to Chicago's local NBC affiliate. But since then, he said, current parents have reached out to him saying they support the policy as it is.

He also told TODAY that the school has plans to review the policy because "every year we have an internal review of our policies and procedures," which will happen before the end of the school year in June. He said he's unsure if any of the hair policies will be changed.

Ida Nelson, 38, and her son Jett, 4.Ida Nelson

"Changing the policy would be a nod towards the atonement," Nelson said. "But changing the culture surrounding the rule would let the community know that the school actually stands with us in our attempt to raise mentally strong, as well as highly educated children."

Now, Nelson said she's focusing her energy on trying to work with her congressional representatives to pass the Crown Act, a law in several states and cities, but not in Illinois or Chicago, that "prohibits race-based hair discrimination," according to TheCrownAct.com.

"I'm not a person that's not a rule follower," Nelson stressed. "I actually preach to my kids that rules are important to have ... but compromising your integrity and who you are is never on the table."

"I want every last one of my children to learn early what I learned late, which is how to embrace yourself and how to love yourself and that you do not have to change who you are, the things that you were born with ... in order to fit in with anyone else."

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