Dress code violation sparks racial controversy and conversations at Camden charter school

After an African-American student was punished for wearing an African head wrap, administrators are accused of favoring Hispanic teens at Camden Academy Charter High School.

Geniah Miller in her Camden Academy Charter High School uniform and the Nigerian head wrap with her mother, Chioma Sullivan, at their Camden home on Feb. 11, 2019, after Miller was sent home from school. (April Saul for WHYY)

Geniah Miller in her Camden Academy Charter High School uniform and the Nigerian head wrap with her mother, Chioma Sullivan, at their Camden home on Feb. 11, 2019, after Miller was sent home from school. (April Saul for WHYY)

When Geniah Miller wore a Nigerian head wrap to Camden Academy Charter High last week to mark Black History Month, the 17-year old didn’t know that the vibrant, orange and yellow wrap would ignite a firestorm at her school.

Almost immediately, the teen says Principal Dara Ash told her she’d violated the school’s dress code and had three options: take off the wrap, report to in-school suspension, or go home.

The girl’s mother, Chioma Sullivan, picked up her daughter by 9 a.m. on Feb. 11, and then vented her frustration in a tearful Facebook video that has since been viewed more than 10,000 times.

For Sullivan, the daughter of a Nigerian man who immigrated to the U.S. for a better life, the punishment was personal. The walls in her Parkside neighborhood home are lined with African art, her family members have Nigerian middle names, and she still grieves the loss of her father, who died in November.

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Miller and other students believe the dress code is being enforced unevenly.

They say Hispanic Heritage Month celebration in the fall is more festive and unfettered than Black History Month is at the school.

“All the walls in the school were decorated,” said Janece Rodriguez, a junior at the school, about Heritage Month. “There were a couple of people wearing flags on their foreheads and they didn’t get in trouble.”

By contrast, said junior Lamira Bronson, Black History Month is only recognized with a Feb. 27 assembly, “and that’s when we can wear cultural stuff.”

The difference makes Sullivan even more upset about how her daughter was treated.

“I’m very angry that this school will not acknowledge these kids for one month,” Sullivan said.

“Anybody can look at her and see that’s an African head wrap,” Sullivan added. “Why not show the other kids and explain it to them as an educational piece?”

The school’s perspective

Camden Academy Charter High School. (April Saul for WHYY)

The school’s handbook prohibits “bandanas, hairnets, scarves or any excessively large headwear” but lists no specific punishment for wearing them. Miller was suspended once for dancing during a fire drill.

Joseph Conway, superintendent and co-founder of the Camden Charter School Network that oversees four schools in the city including this one, doesn’t think the dress code is enforced unfairly.

“Students in each of the celebrations get equal ability to express their pride and ethnicity,” he said.

He added that the school also has “dress-down” and “spirit” days when students can “step outside the school uniform and show their individuality.”

In the aftermath of the incident, students seized the opportunity to air grievances.

The day after Miller was sent home, teens staged what Senior Class President Marcus Moss called “a mini-protest” in the gym, refusing to leave until the principal heard their concerns.

“They wanted to suspend me for that,” Moss said.

Moss said Bill Helmbrecht, co-founder of the Camden Charter School Network, “wouldn’t let them because I had done nothing wrong.”

“Honestly, they try to keep our mouths shut as much as possible in every shape and form,” Moss added.

School administrators were especially upset over what Conway characterized as “a social media frenzy” that began with Chioma Sullivan’s video and that he felt focused mostly on the principal.

“They really treated her badly,” Conway said.

Last week, during assemblies, Moss and Camacho said students were told they would face disciplinary action if they posted about the controversy online. Moss said he was previously suspended for posting a negative comment about the school on Facebook.

Conway denied that students are punished for social media posts made outside of school, unless “it’s going to cause a social disturbance or a fight in school.”

Yet even as students were told to keep their comments off social media, one of the school’s cafeteria workers posted her support of the principal on Facebook with the hashtag #ImWithAsh.

‘We just need to have better conversations’

At the same time, Lamira Bronson says she and a few other students met with Ash, Helmbrecht, and Conway, who all promised to improve the Black History Month assembly slated for next week and to “change things step by step,” including possibly revising the handbook.

Conway also believes that the current ethnic composition of the school, which he estimates to be 70 percent Hispanic and 30 percent African-American and West Indian, may be fueling the controversy.

Several years ago, he said, when the school was only 10 percent Hispanic, it was the Latino students who tended to feel slighted.

Conway said he and other administrators will continue to meet with students to hear their suggestions, whether it’s an African-American after school program or history class, as opposed to one celebration.

“The focus has been on the Nigerian head wrap, he said. “But what can we talk about that’s a little bit deeper and longer than just a cultural awareness month?”

“We just need to have better conversations,” Conway added.

Camden County NAACP President Kevin Barfield met with Miller and Sullivan and has offered to help resolve the conflicts.

“Charter schools are set up to strip students of their identity and it’s obvious in how they treat them,” Barfield said. “The child’s in school, in uniform, and ready to learn. Why is her head wrap more important than that?”

The controversy is sowing division at the school.

Junior Zay’Lynn Camacho, who has epilepsy, took to Facebook in support classmate Miller.  The morning after her post, Camacho said she realized she’d forgotten to take her morning medication and went to the charter’s school nurse to get more. Camacho said before she could ask for help, the nurse expressed anger at Camacho’s post and the teen fled.

Camacho then called her mother, Heaven Mendez, crying.

“I had to calm her down so she wouldn’t have a seizure,” Mendez said.

The school didn’t have a comment on the nurse’s actions.

In spite of their frustrations, all the students interviewed said they had no plans to leave Camden Academy Charter and are satisfied with the education they receive there. Nor do they blame principal Ash.

“I don’t think it’s her fault,” Camacho said. “She just has to follow the rules that are given to her.”

Heaven Mendez, who has been a parent member of the Charter School Network board and now works at Woodrow Wilson High, believes her daughter would get just as good an education at Wilson, but would rather see her stay at Camden Academy Charter.

“If I put her in Woodrow Wilson then I let them win,” Mendez said. “We need to teach the kids to stand proud and do this in a positive way. They’re going to be the change. They’re going to be the reason Camden City turns around.”

Now back in school without the head wrap, Geniah Miller said she’s tired of being in the center of the storm.

“I just want everybody to be equal and everybody to feel comfortable,” she said. “Right now, nobody feels comfortable.”

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