Bangor’s school committee has given preliminary approval to banning discrimination based on hair style and texture as a number of states nationwide, including Maine, recognize hair discrimination as a form of prejudice.
The change, which the committee approved unanimously on Wednesday without discussion, keeps the school department in line with a new state law that Gov. Janet Mills signed in April that prohibits discrimination and harassment on the basis of hairstyle or hair texture and added the protection to the Maine Human Rights Act.
The Bangor School Department’s policy already prohibits discrimination against and harassment of students and staff based on race, sex, gender, disability, religion, age and a number of other factors. Should the policy change receive final passage next month, hair style and texture would be added to the list.
The change addresses a push from a former Bangor student who said she was harassed by students and school staff for her naturally curly hair. The harassment ranged from comments that she interpreted as racist to students touching her hair after being asked not to. One time, when she was in elementary school, a teacher cut off portions of her braids.
Arianna DeJesus, who is Black, said comments from students and teachers about her hair, regardless of whether she was wearing her natural curls or a protective hairstyle like braids or cornrows, hurt her mental health and confidence.
Bangor student who had her braids cut and faced racist comments is pushing to make hair discrimination illegal
While the Bangor School Department has resolved to address racism in its classrooms, Arianna DeJesus said discrimination against Black students and students of color persists.
As a cheerleader, DeJesus, who graduated from Bangor High School this year, was told to straighten her hair to match that of all the other cheerleaders, which caused extensive heat damage. Even when she wasn’t told to, DeJesus said she knew if she didn’t straighten her hair, someone would comment that her hair looked “frizzy” or unkempt.
“I went through a period where I just wanted to look like everyone else and I would damage my hair to the point where it would just break off,” DeJesus, 18, said. “When you’re stuck in that period for years, it can impact your mental health. It’s hard to connect with yourself and figure out who you are when you’re trying to look like everyone else.”
Today, DeJesus admitted she still uses words like “frizzy mess” or “a big helmet” to describe her hair because that’s what other people called her hair when she was growing up.
DeJesus said she’s happy the school department is taking steps to prohibit hair descrimination, but she wants to see action and change, such as the school educating students on what hair discrimination is. She said she’d also like to see clear consequences for students and staff when they harass students because of their hair because “I really could’ve used that when I was younger.”
“A policy is just words on a page until someone enforces it,” DeJesus said. “I hope the school department goes through with these changes and works to fix it because kids now really need help.”
Bangor Superintendent James Tager said the addition of hair style and texture to the nondiscrimination policy is connected to the work of the school department’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Committee.
That committee, which formed after reports about racism at Bangor High became public in 2020, recommended a number of steps this spring to make the city’s predominantly white schools more welcoming. Those steps included hiring a more diverse staff and changing school curriculum so course materials feature more diverse perspectives, cultures and identities.
The school committee accepted those recommendations last month.
“We want to do what’s right for all our students,” Tager said. “At the end of the day, we treat all our students with dignity and respect. Certainly this is an item that has come up publicly and we’re fully in support.”