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Illinois bill banning school-level hair discrimination will head to governor’s desk

Jett Hawkins poses for a portrait, donning his hair in braids, in his family’s Douglas home in March.
Jett Hawkins poses for a portrait, donning his hair in braids, in his family’s Douglas home in March.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Illinois schools soon won’t be able to ban students from wearing traditionally Black hairstyles thanks to a West Side mom’s fight and a bill headed for the governor’s desk.

Officially called the Jett Hawkins Law, the new rule will call on the Illinois State Board of Education to complete a review of school handbooks and policies to ensure they don’t single out and ban Black hairstyles like cornrows, locs and braids. Schools that don’t comply will face funding cuts and may lose their recognition with the Illinois State Board of Education.

The Jett Hawkins Law was passed by the Illinois House of Representatives Thursday after previously being passed by the Illinois Senate under the sponsorship of state Sen. Mike Simmons. The measure passed 40-13 in the Illinois Senate, and 89-22 in the Illinois House.

In a procedural step, it’ll now go back to the Senate so they can add Hawkins’ name to the bill before it heads to the governor’s desk. A spokesperson for Gov. JB Pritzker did not immediately answer if the governor will sign the bill into law.

The rule was inspired by a West Side mom, Ida Nelson, who spoke out in March after her 4-year-old son, Jett Hawkins, fell victim to hair discrimination at Providence St. Mel School in Garfield Park for wearing a braided hairstyle.

“No child should have to experience discrimination based on something that is part of their bodies, something God blessed them with that makes them uniquely beautiful,” Nelson said.

Simmons — who keeps his hair in long, freeform locs — drafted the bill with the State Board of Education after Nelson shared her son’s story.

“In this country, Black hairstyles have often been targeted and criminalized. And that’s got to stop,” Simmons said. “Oftentimes, there are attempts made to control Black bodies, and ultimately that’s what it comes down to. … This is my body. You don’t get to make laws and rules and policies around my body.”

Although nearly the entire student body at Providence St. Mel is Black, the school’s handbook bans students from having several Black hairstyles, including locs, braids and cornrows on boys.

When Nelson fought the school’s hair policy, a multitude of students, alumni and parents stepped forward with their own stories dating back to the early ’90s of being disciplined, ostracized and humiliated by school administrators for having natural, kinky hair or traditional protective hairstyles.

Lauren Leggett, a 2019 alumna of Providence St. Mel, said the school’s attitudes toward natural Black hairstyles shook her self-esteem.

As part of Leggett’s natural hair journey, she slowly worked up the courage to wear a “big, beautiful afro” to school. Once she did, she got a lot of strange looks and comments from students and faculty, she said.

The next day, Leggett smoothed her hair into a ponytail “because I felt kind of ashamed,” she said. When a dean commented on her ponytail, it triggered every insecurity she was feeling about her kinky hair.

“She said, ‘I like your hair better like that.’ It just affirmed for me that my natural hair will never be accepted,” Leggett said.

Keli Stewart, of the class of 1997, drew the ire of school officials for having natural hair and for wearing traditional headwraps like the Nigerian gele.

“The hair policy speaks to a larger culture of anti-Blackness,” Stewart said. “I just remember how I felt expressing my Black self, that this wasn’t the space to do that in.”

School rules that discriminate against traditionally Black hairstyles create a culture of self-hatred and shame toward student’s African heritage, Leggett said.

“We know racial discrimination is directly tied to degradation of mental health,” Leggett said. “This is not just to protect our hair. This is literally to protect Black lives. We are losing children to instances of racial discrimination.”

The hair policy at Providence St. Mel will be reviewed after the end of the current school year, Principal Timothy Ervin previously said.

“It’s not about disrespecting people or discriminating against people,” Ervin said. “It was just clearly trying to be very distinguished in the neighborhood.”

But the Jett Hawkins Act is a powerful move against discrimination, Leggett said.

“The next step is to look to defund racist institutions on every scale,” Leggett said.

Donors who financially support institutions that uphold racist policies are also to blame for allowing discrimination to exist, she said. They must take stock of who they choose to support and stop funding schools, organizations and businesses that are known to participate in white supremacy, Leggett said.

“Why are we funding a school that has historically been racist and used respectability politics as a weapon to make Black children feel voiceless and unheard?” Leggett said. “Black children deserve an education without that mental and emotional cost.”

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago. Block Club Chicago is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom that covers stories in Chicago’s neighborhoods.

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