Classmates Cut Off Black Girl’s Braided Hair

Education, Racial Justice

Melrose Public Schools Fail Again To Protect Black Student From Racial Bullying

White Classmates Call Fifth-Grader “Monkey” Repeatedly, Cut Off Her Braided Hair

Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a federal civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights against Melrose Public Schools for the ongoing and persistent failure to prevent or address racial bullying and violence. The complaint was filed on behalf of Kai, an 11-year-old Black student in fifth grade who was subjected to escalating incidents of racial bullying, as white classmates called her racial epithets repeatedly and cut off one of her braided hair extensions during class. Today’s complaint follows closely on the heels of a separate complaint about racial bullying at Melrose filed just last week.

Kai attends Winthrop Elementary School in Melrose through the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) program, and is one of only two Black students in her entire grade. Less than two weeks into school, a white classmate called her a “monkey”; not long after that another white student said, “that monkey looks like you,” referring to a character from a math app. Another white student also referred to “an ape like Kai” in the school cafeteria.

In the most recent incident last month, one or more of her classmates cut off several inches of Kai’s braided hair extensions without her knowledge or consent, while Kai was doing classwork in school. As a Black girl who wears braids as part of her personal expression, the most recent incident was particularly harmful to Kai because it was a physical assault and also an attack on her cultural identity.

Kai and her parents have repeatedly brought these racial incidents to the school district’s attention. Nevertheless, school officials failed to meaningfully take action to address the racial attacks, discipline the perpetrators, and prevent further race-based incidents. As a result, Kai faced additional attacks that have traumatized, humiliated, stigmatized, and endangered her.

The complaint filed today requests a federal investigation of the school districts’ violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“My daughter should never have to deal with being called a ‘monkey’ or an ‘ape’ or having her braids cut, but the fact that the school did nothing to prevent future incidents makes the problem even worse, and it emboldens the racist bullies. The district failed to ensure that my daughter’s learning environment is safe from racial attacks,” said Kai’s mother, Kerrin Gibbs.

“Schools are charged with keeping all children safe – including Black students. When an 11 year-old Black student cannot do work at her desk without her braided hair being unknowingly cut, or where she cannot make it past the second week of school without being called a monkey, the environment is dangerous. It also inflicts pain and trauma. Melrose needs to do much more to protect students of color from these escalating racial bullying attacks,” said Michael Kippins, Litigation Fellow at LCR.

This legal action follows similar complaints recently filed against Melrose and Southwick, both involving an overwhelmingly anti-Black sentiment and a pattern of racial bullying and harassment, evidencing the growing racial bullying problem across schools in the Commonwealth. The back-to-back complaints against Melrose are particularly alarming, especially because Melrose has already been the subject of oversight and monitoring after a 2015 incident of racial hostility. Federal intervention is needed again.