On July 31, 2020, The Supreme Court of Jamaica ruled against the family of a girl who was told to cut her locks in order to attend classes at Kensington Primary School. The Court has NOT yet produced a written judgement, so we cannot comment on the specific legal issues determined. The case, originally filed by attorneys at Jamaicans for Justice, argued that such practices unreasonably violate children’s rights. We take note of the Court’s oral decision and await the written explanation.
In 2019, Jamaicans for Justice filed a claim, obtaining an injunction which allowed the child to attend school. After that, the case continued with an outside attorney who argued the full case before the Constitutional Court in 2020. JFJ was never a named party/claimant in this suit, nor was the legal standing of the organization the issue before the Court as has been incorrectly reported by some. Our role was to initiate this case and provide services to the family at the time.
“None But Ourselves Can Free Our Minds”
No child should be denied or threatened with the denial of an education because they wear locks. Many children and families across Jamaica have been negatively impacted by this and other unjust rules that police children’s appearance in ways that are unreasonable and discriminatory. In many instances, these rules are simply school administrators’ prejudices “dressed up” and formalized.
We call for a national re-thinking of these restrictions and the values that inform them. We envision a society in which a child’s legal right to access education is not secondary to the personal grooming preferences of school administrators. We seek a society in which school rules are not blindly defended “because they are rules” without any educationally relevant justifications.
That this news comes during emancipation celebrations, reminds us of the need to, as Marcus Garvey put it, “emancipate ourselves from mental slavery.”
Reform Education Act & Regulations to Set Minimum Standards for School Rules
Pending the publication of the written judgement, we do not know what led the Court to this decision, but for us, the issue is not over. It is now a matter of law reform. Jamaica’s Education Act (1965) and Education Regulations (1980) are outdated and do not include any meaningful protections for children from arbitrary, unreasonable, and discriminatory restrictions by schools. They effectively leave this responsibility entirely to schools – which is why many of these rules vary so extremely across the country. The grooming and attire “guidelines” that exist offer no direct legal protection.
While the central government does NOT need to enforce one set of dress and grooming rules across Jamaica, we believe it should establish minimum standards and protections for students against unreasonable and discriminatory rules. This is their duty. Last year JFJ raised this issue with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information who committed to consider the issue.
In the wake of this Court decision, we will be refocusing our efforts to secure these key reforms. The reforms are simple and achievable, and only require decisive action – not just commentary – to make these key changes. They would prevent the widespread injustices against children and denial of education based on their hair or other arbitrary grooming and dress regulations that deny them equitable access to education. This is essential to the government’s own Vision 2030 claims to “universal access to education.”
We should not let next year’s emancipation celebrations occur without this being addressed. As Marcus Garvey put it, “None but ourselves can free our minds.”