Public Scholarship

Penalizing Black Hair in the Name of Academic Success is Undeniably Racist, Unfounded, and Against the Law

Key Observations
  • School discipline disproportionately affects students of color.
  • In the name of creating ‘safer’ student learning environments, public schools have put into place strict, zero-tolerance policies designed to address misconduct.  
  • School-based policies that criminalize cultural expressions are worthy of continued scrutiny, as they are nothing short of cultural, gender, and economic discrimination.


Black students are three to six times more likely to be suspended or expelled from school, and today, there remains a regressive movement that continues to criminalize natural Black hairstyles under the auspices of “preparing them for the real world.” Discretionary school suspensions, particularly related to Black hairstyles, are shameful and disproportionately applied.

Scholars at the Center for Justice Research found that 70 percent of all suspension disciplines are discretionary. Specifically, Black students are more likely to be suspended for discretionary reasons unrelated to student misconduct, such as their hairstyle.

To reduce the number of discretionary school suspensions issued to Black students, CJR recommends the following steps be implemented at schools:

  • Enact a moratorium on discretionary school suspensions
  • Build an Infrastructure for the Collection and Analysis of Schools’ Discipline Data
  • Utilize Focus Groups
  • Form a Community Task Force
  • Implement Cultural Awareness Training
  • Adopt A Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS) Framework

These recommendations aim to modify current school dress codes and rules of student appearance by being culturally sensitive to clothing styles and hairstyles. Tracking school disciplinary actions gives community members the tools to analyze and correct prejudice views against students. Research also shows students who have difficulty in the classroom can improve academically if provided alternative punishments to school suspensions, like the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS) Framework.

Read the full Brookings Institution article here