Caleb Ishimwe, left, and Emanuel Francisco work on a group project for the book club at Lewiston Middle School. Students were allowed to wear hoods and hats throughout the pandemic. When the policy changed April 1, students thought it was an April Fool’s joke. It was no joke and the eighth-graders are asking that the school dress code be changed to allow hoods and hats. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Lewiston Middle School eighth-grader Yusuf Isaaq, 14, who is Black, remembers going to school after his dad gave him a bad haircut.

He was embarrassed.

“I didn’t want anyone to see my hair. So I put a hood on,” Isaaq said.

When he walked into school, “a teacher said ‘take your hood off,’” Isaaq said.

Humiliated, he took his hood off. When he got to his classroom a white student was wearing a hood.

“No one asked him to take his hood off,” Isaaq said. “It made me feel mad.”

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Other middle school Black students who’ve had similar experiences say there’s a connection to hats, hoods and racial equity in Lewiston public schools. Hats and hoods are often more important to black students than white, in large part because black hair takes more time to groom. When there isn’t time to groom their hair the way that makes them feel good, black students prefer to wear a hood or hat. But, the students said, white students are often not asked to remove their hats and hoods, while Black students are.

After researching anti-racism restorative justice with Bates College students in Lewiston and Bates professor Patricia Buck, and after surveying fellow students and meeting with administrators, a group of 20 middle school students are asking that the dress code be changed to allow hoods and hats.

Students said the change would make school a more welcoming place for Black students, who make up some 40% of the middle school’s student population of 800.

The proposed change is being considered by the Lewiston School Committee, which this summer is expected to review and update the overall disciplinary policies, middle school teacher Allston Parkinson said.

During a meeting with the Sun Journal, students explained the importance of their hats and hoods, and what the ban has to do with racial inequity.

Elizabeth Ernesto, 14, likes to wear her hair in braids, but braiding her hair takes hours. “It’s really hard to prepare your hair and get to school on time,” she said. “Sometimes you’re shamed. If you have a hat or hood you can cover it.”

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Black hair is different in that it requires more grooming, she said. Typically white students “wake up and their hair’s fine,” Ernesto said. “They just need to comb it once or twice.”

Hawa Omer, 13, works on a project for the book club at Lewiston Middle School. The eighth-grader is one of the students asking that the school dress code be changed to allow hoods and hats. The fact that Omer is allowed to wear here hijab at school, but others cannot wear hoods and hats, is one point students have made. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Caleb Ishimwe, 13, said sometimes he oversleeps and doesn’t have time to care for his hair before school. He took off his hood exposing his hair, which he said “is down. Bigger and puffier is my desired look. It’s not like that now. It takes work and time to get it the way you want.”

Emanuel Francisco, 13, also said when he wakes up his hair doesn’t look good. “If I’m late for school I wear a hood.”

Plus, he added, a hood keeps him warm when it’s cold in class. “I sit over there,” he said pointing to the front of the class by the windows. Sometimes “it’s blasting cold. I need a hat or hood to feel more comfortable.”

He and other students spoke of a school event in the gym this spring where students participated in a tug-of-war competition. The event was recorded by cameras and watched by students later.

“A student of color was disqualified because he had a hood on,” Francisco said. “But another white kid was wearing a hat.” The white student in the hat walked by the teacher who disqualified the black student. “Nothing happened,” Francisco said. It could have been a mistake, Francisco said, “but it felt like it was racism. For me, I felt it was unfair. That racism shouldn’t exist.”

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And, he added, “if you’re walking into school and the first thing you hear is ‘take off your hood’ and you’re having a bad day, it doesn’t make the day any better.”

Two teachers working with the students are Parkinson and Michelle Dubois.

The origin for the no-hats, no-hoods rule stems from being able to identify students if there’s trouble, Dubois said, adding he doesn’t see the need for the ban to continue.

“In terms of identifying kids in a hallway fight, I don’t think it’s a problem,” she said. “We do have cameras enough to narrow it down. And certainly the kids will tell you” who was involved.

As a teacher, telling a student to take off their hood or hat “is an antagonistic act,” Parkinson said. “I don’t like to start the day telling a kid to remove an article of clothing when I know it’s a flashpoint.”

And, he added, students don’t have difficulty learning when wearing a hood or a hat.

Dubois agreed. “If having messy hair and not being able to put a hood on is going to mean a terrible day for a student, that they’re not going to be able to learn, then put the hood or hat on,” she said. “To me, the learning is important. Now it’s a power struggle.”

Middle School Principal Jana Mates said she supports her students challenging the rule against hats and hoods.

The original rationale for no hats and hoods in school is no longer relevant, Mates said. “We just navigated a year where students had more than half their face covered by a mask and we figured out who the kids were.”

Yusuf Isaaq, 14, attends an advisory group meeting at Lewiston Middle School. The eighth-grader is one of the students asking that the school dress code be changed to allow hoods and hats. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

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