Thou shalt not covet, steal, or… wear braids.
A furious Queens mom says a Catholic school discriminated against her 8-year-old son by telling him he couldn’t wear his hair in cornrows.
Jediah Batts came undone when he found out in September the braids he’s been cultivating for years didn’t pass muster at Immaculate Conception Catholic Academy in Jamaica. Now his mother is taking the school to court in what will be an early test of a state law passed in July barring policies that ban traditionally black hairstyles like braids and locs.
“I was infuriated that now I have to do this because of something like his hair,” said Jediah’s mother, Lavona Batts, who filed a lawsuit Monday in Queens Supreme Court. “This is discrimination.”
Batts thought Immaculate Conception, a pre-K-8 Catholic school, was the answer to her prayers. It was supposed to be a fresh start for Jediah after three years in a low-performing public school. Batts registered her son last summer for third grade.
She dropped $275 for the school registration fee, and another $250 for the school’s uniform, a spiffy powder-blue button-down and tie tucked into dark gray khakis.
Jediah started school Sept. 4 and loved his first day – his teacher made him feel welcome and his classmates embraced him, the mom noted.
But the feel-good spirit extended only so far.
When Jediah’s grandmother arrived to pick him up that afternoon, the principal told her, “We don’t accept this,” while rubbing the top of the boy’s head, according to the court documents.
The school’s hair policy, according to its student handbook, instructs boys that hair must be “neat and trim, no longer than the top of the shirt collar. No designs, Mohawks, pony tail, braids, buns, no hair color.”
Jediah, whose name means “In God’s Hands,” told his mom he planned to dissent.
“He loves his hair,” Batts said. “He feels like it makes him look good, it’s a part of him. He’s a very smart boy. He knows what he wants he’s and not going to let anyone change his mind about anything.”
Batts resented the fact the principal made the comment in front of her son. “You’re now making him feel like he’s unacceptable,” she said.
School officials and the Diocese of Brooklyn, to which the academy belongs, did not return requests for comment.
Batts said she tried to contact the principal to work something out. She didn’t want to remove her son from a new school he liked, but also didn’t want to force him to get rid of his hair to stay.
The school didn’t budge, telling Batts she had five days to change her son’s hair, according to the lawsuit. Batts said a staffer warned her other Catholic schools would have the same policy.
She decided to chance it, pulling her son from the Jamaica school before the start of the first full week, and enrolling him in another Catholic school that didn’t prohibit braided hair. She subsequently found a public school that was a better fit, she said.
At first, Batts said, a lawsuit wasn’t on her radar.
“I was more concerned about finding him a new school,” she said. “I fully felt like this wasn’t right, but my head was like, the bigger issue is my son needs to go to school to get an education.”
While Batts scrambled to find a new school, her mother began researching the law.
In July, New York became the second state to pass a law prohibiting natural hair discrimination, joining California. The city’s Commission on Human Rights issued similar guidelines in February.
The city guidance mandates that, “because natural hair and locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, and Afros are…most closely associated with Black people, no school covered under the [New York City Human Rights Law] may prohibit such styles in New York City.” The state law added to the list of illegal race discrimination “traits historically associated with race, including but not limited to hair texture and protective hairstyles.”
Batts’s lawyer, Oliver Koppell, a former City Council Member and acting state Attorney General, said the state law does carve out an exception for religious doctrine. “But I’ve never heard of hair being part of the Catholic religion,” he said.
Batts is suing to recover enrollment and uniform costs, which she says the school hasn’t refunded, and for emotional damages.
Finding another school for her son mid-year was a nightmarish ordeal, she said. And though he’s now happily enrolled at a new public school, she worries about the other black boys who have to choose between their hair and a Catholic school education.
“You’d think a Catholic school is about Christ and love,” she said. “What does a hairdo have to do with that?”