When Will Jamaica Have a Fair Grooming Policy for All Students?

In August 2022, Jamaica’s Ministry of Education held a series of consultations focused on the dress and grooming of students in schools hoping to develop a policy that would balance the rights of students with school disciplinary rules and reduce discrimination in schools based on hairstyles and grooming practices. The Ministry also attempted to incorporate considerations of cultural identity, climate conditions, parents’ socio-economic circumstances, and the goals of educational institutions. The issue of grooming in Jamaican schools has often been a subject of controversy, and calls for consistency have resurfaced periodically and been linked to the larger issues of discrimination, human rights abuses, rights of students, and responsibilities of parents.

Student Hairstyles Targeted

In 2016, Hopefield Preparatory School in St. Andrew refused to admit a three-year-old boy because of the length of his hair, and Kingston College prohibited some students from entering its North Street campus because they wore Mohawks and fade hairstyles. In 2020, Prime Minister Andrew Holness expressed concern about a seven-year-old girl who was prohibited from attending St. Catherine’s Kensington Primary School because of her dreadlocks. In 2021, the president of the Jamaica Association of Principals of Secondary Schools, Linvern Wright, supported the actions of Dwight Pennycooke, principal of Wolmer’s Boys School, who barred some students from taking their year-end exams due to a hairstyle infringement, while Wright expressed annoyance that hair grooming protocols were again being discussed publicly. In 2022, Manning’s School in Savannah-la-Mar banned its Sixth Form “young ladies” from wearing Chiney Bumps/Bantu Knots in their school photos, citing a school policy. Strong objections were shared on social media as posters called the policy offensive and discriminatory.

Concerns About Discrimination, Human Rights Abuses

The debate over students’ grooming has prompted conversations about larger issues, including discrimination, human rights abuses, the rights of students and the responsibilities of parents. The National Council on Education, Jamaica’s major advisory body on education, has sought stakeholder input on the issue of how – or whether – student dress and grooming should be regulated. Questions arose about who should make decisions about the regulations, whether it should be the Ministry, whether certain entities should be left to make their own rules, what “appropriate dress” really is, and if the situation is different for public and private institutions.

Leaders Not Aligned 

When the Education Ministry introduced a  grooming policy that went into effect for the 2018-2019 school year, the Jamaica Teachers’ Association refused to dictate what any school’s dress code should be. Jamaicans for Justice, a human rights advocacy organization, filed a legal action asking the constitutional court to rule that public schools cannot establish any policy that requires students to remove their natural hair to obtain an education. School principals took conflicting positions, with some believing the issue must be addressed through negotiation and compromise, while others held that school policies are implemented to provide discipline that so must be affirmed.

A Clear Policy

Jamaica’s Education Minister Fayval Williams recently announced that male Rastafarian students will no longer have to wear tams to cover their dreadlocks while attending class. Also, Williams stated that the Ministry will issue a draft policy on student grooming for public comment before the start of the 2023-2024 school year.

Photo – Unsplash

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Stephanie Korney