Teen booted from basketball game over her hairstyle despite NJ anti-racism law, school says

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By Dan Sears

The Maplewood-South Orange School District says a varsity girls basketball player was prohibited from entering a game because she had beads in her hair — in violation of an anti-discrimination state law.

“I was shocked when I learned that one of our very own student-athletes was subjected to the same discrimination that New Jersey’s CROWN Act was established to prevent,” Acting Superintendent Kevin F. Gilbert said in a written statement. On Monday, Gilbert filed a racial bias complaint with the NJSIAA, the association that sets the rules for high school sports in New Jersey.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed the Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act, also known as the CROWN Act, in 2019. The law bars discrimination based on traits “historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture, hair type and protective hairstyles.” It followed an incident in which a high school wrestler was forced to cut his dreadlocks off in 2018.

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At the Maplewood basketball game Thursday, two white referees refused to allow the player, who is Black, onto the court with beads in her hair, according to Aaron Breitman, head coach of the Columbia High School varsity basketball team in Maplewood. She tried three times to tie her hair back in tighter and tighter ways to appease the referees, Breitman said.

He did not identify the referees or the teen player.

“The student in question was clearly upset. She was embarrassed and the rest of the team was very confused,” Breitman said. “And in all honesty, it took away from the first quarter of the game. We started off very slow because the game was no longer our focus. “

The girl was allowed to reenter the game in the second quarter, after the Columbia coaches pointed out rules by the National Federation of State High School Associations saying beads and other hard objects are allowed in hair so long as they’re secured.

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The NJSIAA received the letter from the Maplewood-South Orange School District and is reviewing what happened, spokesman Mike Cherenson said. He also cited published rules that specify beads in hair are allowed.

Christopher Conklin, the superintendent of the Caldwell-West Caldwell School District, said it’s the district’s policy not to comment on athletic association investigations.

“However, our staff is fully cooperating with the NJSIAA’s investigation into the complaint made by the [Maplewood-South Orange School District],” Conklin said in an email.

The Maplewood acting superintendent, Gilbert, praised the NJSIAA on Tuesday for responding quickly to the complaint.

“We look forward to the outcome of this investigation and hope this moves everyone toward valuing the intent and purpose of the rule changes governing high school sports competition and New Jersey’s CROWN Act,” Gilbert said in a written statement.

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