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State Senator Seeks To Stop School Dress Code Restrictions On Hair

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State Sen. Mike Simmons, D-Chicago, makes his case for amendment 1 to SB817 in the General Assembly. The bill would impose funding penalties on schools that keep policies in place that apply dress codes to hairstyles.

SPRINGFIELD – A Chicago state senator wants to withhold funding from schools that apply dress codes to hairstyles. School associations and the Illinois State Board of Education are worried the bill’s punishment mechanism goes too far.

In the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Mike Simmons, D-Chicago, said policies that ban certain hairstyles in schools are outdated. He said he thinks schools will want to be on the right side of history if the amendment to SB817 becomes law.

“I think this will be much better for the state, it’ll be much better for our young people,” said Simmons.

Aisha Davis is the Vice Chair for Chicago’s Affinity Community Services, a social justice organization centered on Black LGBTQ communities. Davis says she wants Black, Latinx and indigenous students to be able to show up to school as their authentic selves.

“Many of the regulations and rules that exist in schools ban hairstyles that have nothing to do with hygiene or health, but limit students for wearing their hair in styles that are traditionally associated with communities of color, and are deemed less acceptable or professional because they do not adhere to Eurocentric standards of beauty or grooming,” said Davis. “Restrictions on hairstyles do nothing but create a situation where students are forced to question the ‘acceptability’ and ‘professionalism’ of their appearance.”

Xavier Ramey, the CEO of the Chicago consulting firm Justice Informed, said the bill is an important step toward equity and autonomy. He said the bill has to do with implicit and unconscious biases people hold about what hair says about a person.

“It is inculcated into black and brown youth at an early age that they should fear how they how they represent themselves as relates to their hair, that they should respect the fears of others who may see their hair as something that may distract or diminish from their ability to really gain the fruit of their brilliance in the workforce or otherwise,” said Ramey.

Under the bill, districts out of compliance would have their names listed on the state board’s website, in addition to having their state funding kept at the previous school year’s level. Districts would receive the additional funding once they comply with the bill.

Amanda Elliott, the director of legislative affairs for the state board of education, said there are a variety of already-existing enforcement mechanisms that can be used when schools don’t comply with legislation, including a process to revoke recognition from a district. Elliott said in almost a decade with the board, she hasn’t seen a district have their recognition, and thus their funding, revoked.

“We have threatened it several times, which results in pretty quick compliance,” said Elliott. “Districts generally don’t want that to happen and come into compliance with the mandate.”

Elliott said the board also has a department in place to help students across the state navigate issues with their schools and districts.

Other senators also said they were worried about the potential effect of the bill.

“If you want to take away or potentially take away funding from schools, the schools that are most heavily reliant on state funds are schools that are your low income schools, they’re schools that very much need this income,” said Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris. 

Simmons said those mechanisms wouldn’t go far enough for his bill.

“I frankly believe that to really eliminate systemic racism, we need a systemic response,” said Simmons. “What I saw is basically a scenario where where Black parents are going to have the burden on them to file a complaint, and I know from lived experiences, that that doesn’t work.”

Simmons said the bill needs teeth so schools take it seriously.

“As somebody who has been targeted and discriminated myself by schools and has been resilient in that, I don’t want the next generation to have to go through this,” said Simmons. “I don’t think it’s a matter of education, I think it’s a really straightforward matter of policy.”

Simmons said he’ll keep working with staff and stakeholders on the legislation. He’s hoping to bring the bill back to committee before the end of session at the end of this month.

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