When a representative from Cristo Rey Jesuit High School visited Danielle Cook's class, the eighth-grader thought she fit the criteria for the rigorous college preparatory high school in Baltimore. She has been a straight-A student since preschool, is at the top of her class at Afya Public Charter School and participates in a half-dozen extracurricular activities.
Then the representative described the school's dress code and its hairstyle restrictions, and Danielle realized something other than academics could keep her from attending: the 75 dreadlocks framing her face.
"I was hurt," Danielle said. "I like my hair. It's me. It's nobody else."
The school's policy didn't prevent her from applying, she was told, but it would prevent her from attending — unless she cut the dreadlocks or combed them out. After inquiries from The Baltimore Sun on Monday, a spokeswoman at Cristo Rey said administrators had decided to abandon its dreadlocks policy.
"That policy is no longer in effect, and students who are interested in applying to the school are being made aware that it's no longer in effect," said Mary Beth Lennon, communications director and spokeswoman for Cristo Rey in Baltimore.
Schools banning certain hairstyles — particularly those traditionally worn by African-American women — have sparked national debate in recent weeks, as two other young girls were faced with the choice to change their hair or be kicked out of school.
In Florida, a young girl faced expulsion from her private Christian school because she didn't straighten or style her hair that she let grow naturally. And in Oklahoma, a young girl also was sent home when her charter school said her dreadlocks were not "presentable." Both schools relented on their stringent rules.
Danielle and her mother had been exploring how she could attend a premier high school when she was informed that Cristo Rey, her top choice, would not allow students whose hair was styled in dreadlocks to attend.
"I was completely blown back," said Dawnetta Jenkins, the 13-year-old's mother. "I didn't believe it. I never ever thought that hair would be a [reason] for why my child couldn't go to a good school. Having this policy is like telling kids that they're excelling for nothing."
Danielle committed to growing the dreadlocks at 9 to look like her mother.
"When she said she wanted them, I told her it was like a marriage," said Jenkins as she combed her hands through her daughter's coils of hair, which Jenkins tightens at least every two weeks.
Lennon could not say how long the dreadlocks policy had been on the books at Cristo Rey.
According to Lennon, Cristo Rey has received 1,300 applications from students in Baltimore City since 2007, "and no student has declined our offer because of any standards related to the dress code."
The school, part of a national network of Cristo Rey Jesuit schools, primarily serves African-American, low-income students and offers a corporate internship program that is the primary attraction for Danielle.
Her mother was set on her going to a boarding school and thought that private school was a natural next step after excelling at a charter school.
"I know private school is a choice, but when she has the grades to go, they shouldn't make the choice on whether she can go there based on this," Jenkins said. "If this does not open their eyes to the fact that they are turning someone away who could enhance their school, then they have issues. If they can get away with hair discrimination, then what else?"
Jenkins said that she had intended to look at other private schools if Danielle couldn't go to Cristo Rey. When contacted Monday, she said she was "floored" and "excited" by the school's decision to reverse the policy.
Cristo Rey's website states that it "embraces a student body that reflects Baltimore's racial, religious and ethnic diversity," and that 71 percent of its student body is African-American, 74 percent of its students are not Catholic, and 59 percent are from public or charter schools.
Lennon also noted that the school has had three classes of graduates, 100 percent of whom have been accepted to college.
"We do not want this issue to distract from what our critical mission is, which is to provide a quality education to Baltimore city students. … And we're looking forward to receiving applications from those who are interested," Lennon said. "We're really proud that we serve students from diverse schools all across Baltimore."
Sarah McLean, chief of staff for regional operations for Teach for America and a friend of the Jenkins family, said she contacted Cristo Rey officials, who confirmed the policy about a week after Danielle informed her that she would not apply to the school because of it.
McLean said she was disturbed by the reasons she was given for the policy. She said she was told the policy was in place because the school's corporate internship partners consider dreadlocks unprofessional, the costs of maintenance are burdensome for parents, and the school didn't want to determine what was "kempt" versus "unkempt."
Lennon said she could not comment on why the policy existed.
McLean, who received a phone call Monday from Cristo Rey to inform her of the policy change, said she was hopeful but questioned why such a policy had been in place at a school in a city that serves an urban population.
"I was just shocked and baffled," McLean said. "To think that she was going to have to choose between her identify and academic future, it broke my heart and also made me really angry. I just thought there's no way we live in a world, particularly Baltimore City, that still has a school that has this policy — a school whose mission it is to advance the opportunities for students just like Danielle."
Area public schools don't restrict hairstyles, but generally do have rules about headwear, such as hats, that are not worn for religious or safety purposes. The Baltimore school system states that "students may wear their hair in any style they choose, provided the hair is kept neat and clean."
While nonpublic schools tend to have more flexibility in their dress codes, some in Baltimore do not have hairstyle restrictions. A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore said that its schools have no such policy.
Before the policy reversal, the ACLU of Maryland said in a statement that private schools that receive public funding should not employ such stringent hairstyle restrictions.
"When private and religious schools solicit and accept state subsidies, like funding for textbooks and technology as Cristo Rey does," the ACLU said, "those schools should agree not to discriminate against prospective students, including discrimination based on religious and ethnic hairstyles."