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JFJ takes legal action over no-locks policy in schools

Published:Wednesday | July 18, 2018 | 12:00 AMSyranno Baines/Gleaner Writer

Human-rights advocacy group Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) yesterday filed an action in the constitutional court, asking it to rule that public schools cannot set a 'no-locks policy' that forces children to remove their natural, locked hair in order to obtain an education.

The lawsuit seeks declarations and orders from the court that this policy, and similar ones, violates the constitutional rights of children and their families to public education, equitable and humane treatment by public authorities, protection from discrimination, freedom of expression, and to other rights.

The legal action is a direct response to and on behalf of the parents of the five-year-old child who, earlier this month, was informed by officials at a St Catherine school that their daughter had until August 29 to remove her locks in order to enter grade one in September.

"While schools have broad power to set rules, those rules cannot be arbitrary, unreasonable, or discriminatory. We at JFJ have taken this matter before the courts with the hope that a nationally binding court decision will stop other institutions from doing this to other children," Rodje Malcolm, executive director of JFJ, told The Gleaner.

In an interview earlier this month, the mother of the child disclosed that her five-year-old daughter had been assessed and accepted at the St Catherine-based primary school. However, after the child went in for orientation and they realised that she wore locks, the principal advised her to undo the locks or find another school because the institution prohibited the wearing of locks as a policy.

The mother challenged the policy and was told by the school that it would not change its position as locked hair was unsuitable for the school environment for various reasons, among them, the general lice issue and the dirtiness of locked hair. The child's family then sought to explore other schools but noted that at this late stage, there were no vacancies.

The Ministry of Education, Youth and Information has not yet established a standardised policy on grooming in schools, which it says will address what schools can and cannot do in respect of children's hair.

In giving his assessment at the start of the new academic year last September, Education Minister Ruel Reid said that he still expected that there would be an understanding among all stakeholders until a policy was implemented.

"In the interim, we did indicate to the schools that while they are allowed under the regulations to set their rules, and there needs to be a set of consultations, there is understanding on the part of students and parents that the policy must be ratified by the board, so persons are very clear what their rules are. You need to demonstrate very clearly and graphically what you mean by the various standards that you are setting," said Reid.