By Dánica Coto
The Associated Press

Government officials are pushing to relax hair codes at schools in Trinidad and Tobago following a recent public outcry over nearly two dozen students who didn’t receive their high school diploma because they wore Afros, cornrows and other hairstyles at graduation.

Education Minister Nyan Gadsby-Dolly called for new rules that would allow students to wear Afros, locks, twists, plaits and cornrows, which are called canerows in the Caribbean in reference to sugarcane. She presented the proposal during a meeting July 6 with legislators, principals and teachers, noting that wigs or dyed hair wouldn’t be allowed.

The meeting was held more than a week after a private high school in Trinidad prevented 23 graduating students from walking the stage to receive their diplomas because of their hairstyles.

Gadsby-Dolly called the incident “unfortunate and regrettable” shortly after it happened, writing on Facebook that: “The time for this conversation in Trinidad and Tobago has come.”

It was the latest incident in the Caribbean involving a school taking action against students of African descent for their hairstyles.

In 2020, Jamaica’s Supreme Court ruled that a primary school had the legal right to ban a 5-year-old student from attending class because she wore locks, sparking an outcry. She eventually was allowed to return to school.

A year later, Jamaica’s Education Ministry warned schools that they weren’t allowed to turn away students taking tests because of their hairstyles after it received complaints of such incidents.

The debate has played out elsewhere, including in the United States, with the U.S. Army dropping a ban on locks in 2017. Then in 2019, California became the first state to prohibit discrimination based on hairstyles including Afros and braids. The bill was signed just months after a referee in New Jersey told a Black high school wrestler he had to cut off his locks if he wanted to compete. Since then, more than 20 U.S. states have approved similar laws, including Michigan last month.

Meanwhile, media in Brazil for the past decade have reported dozens of cases of teachers telling Black children they need to change their hair. In May, a video went viral of a mother in the city of Maringa claiming her 5-year-old daughter had been a victim of racism at school. The child said in the video that
the teacher blamed her curly hair for a bad smell in the classroom. Maringa officials suspended the teacher and are investigating the case.

In September, a history teacher in the city of Belo Horizonte told an 11-year-old girl with curly hair that she looked like “a mad woman who came out of a mental institution,” according to police. The teacher was charged and is awaiting trial. If found guilty, he could spend three years in jail.

Several days before Trinidad’s education minister called the meeting on hairstyles, she stressed the need for reform in the twin-island nation of 1.4 million people where more than 30% are of African descent. “Let’s keep discussing weighty matters; our maturity as a nation depends on it,” she wrote on Facebook.

Trinidad’s Education Ministry said in a statement that schools must create their own hair rules by October that reflect a national code that is in the works.

The ministry added that the educational environment is dynamic and requires “adjustments to policies to keep pace with accepted changes in societal norms, values and beliefs.”

Gadsby-Dolly warned that students shouldn’t be punished for their hairstyles while a new code is being drafted.

Mauricio Savarese in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.