Durham public schools on Wednesday made public a rather startling statement affirming their pupils’ “right to free expression” after a student was nearly not allowed to play in a softball game last month because of her hairstyle. 

The incident took place on April 19 during a girl’s softball game at Jordan High School, where Nicole Pyles, a Hillside High student-athlete was forced by a game official to remove beads from her hair to continue playing. The official was following National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) rules, but the move wasn’t condoned by school administrators.  

“NFHS rules govern athletic competition,” Durham Public Schools spokeswoman Casey Watson said in a press release, adding school board policies “do not prohibit beads in hair.”

“Durham Public Schools supports our students’ right to free expression and opposes unreasonable or biased restrictions on Black women’s hairstyles,” Watson said. 

The DPS announcement comes just months after members of the county’s school board unanimously approved an antidiscrimination ordinance approved by the Durham City Council that bans discrimination based on hairstyle.

Council members also unanimously approved a resolution in support of statewide legislation sponsored in February by state Senator Natalie Murdock, a Democrat from Durham, that would prohibit race-based hair discrimination in North Carolina’s workplaces.

The three-page resolution adopted by the council protects coiffures, hairstyles, and hair textures associated with people of color.

In its investigation of the incident involving the Hillside student, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) found that the incident began when the base umpire noticed the hair beads when Nicole Pyles got to third base. 

DPS officials reported that there “was no involvement by any Jordan High staff member bringing the violation to the game officials’ attention.”

Wednesday’s press release stated the public school system “supports our student-athletes and their right to self-expression in a manner befitting their culture, consistent with safety in training and competition.”

“We believe the blanket ban on hair beads is culturally biased and problematic,” Watson, the DPS spokeswoman, stated in the release. “We support our student, Nicole Pyles, and believe this rule should be amended. We frown on any rule or policy that promotes cultural insensitivity or does not reflect the ideals and principles of DPS and our employees.”

Moving forward, DPS officials announced that they “will be diligently working to encourage the NCHSAA and NFHS to review their policies that on the surface seem fair but are culturally biased and inappropriate.” 

“The aim,” Watson added, “is to make sure that all our athletes regardless of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation have the opportunity to compete without rules that target them based on any of these factors.”

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

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