Mildura student kicked out of St Joseph's College after refusing to cut dreadlocks

A MILDURA high school student is being forced to change schools after St Joseph’s College banned his African hairstyle because it is at odds with its uniform policy.

Caleb Ernst with his mother Bec. Picture: Carmel Zaccone

Caleb Ernst with his mother Bec. Picture: Carmel Zaccone

It’s his culture – this is a very normal hairstyle that’s been around for centuries

Caleb Ernst’s mother Bec

Caleb Ernst, 14, has been told he faces expulsion if he returns from suspension today with his hair still in dreadlocks.

The Year 9 student, whose father is Nigerian, has no intention of cutting the hairstyle which he has maintained to connect with his cultural heritage.

Caleb first braided his hair earlier this year because his curly afro hair was difficult to maintain in any other style.

Despite receiving the initial tick of approval from his heads of house at the Catholic school, the Ernst family said school principal Marg Blythman had since banned him from wearing his hair in dreads to school.

Caleb was suspended from school last week after a meeting between his mother Bec Ernst and Mrs Blythman failed to resolve the issue.

“I’ve missed a few days of school now,” Caleb said.

“I’ve had a couple of essays this week and it’s affecting my education. It’s not fair.”

While the principal labelled his hairstyle “extreme”, Caleb said the dreadlocks made his wiry hair easier to maintain.

He said the only other way to keep his hair neat was to shave his head.

Despite the threat of expulsion, Ms Ernst said Caleb did not want to return to school to face “prejudice”, meaning the promising footballer and basketballer is set to move to a new school when Term 2 starts next month.

“It’s his culture – this is a very normal hairstyle that’s been around for centuries,” Ms Ernst said.

“He looks after his hair now and it’s neat, it’s tidy and it’s easy to manage. All his mates have got hair down to here and that’s fine.

“There’s beautiful African girls that can’t wear their hair in braids and that’s not fair.

“It’s not his behaviour. He’s not a bad kid, he’s well respected, he’s kind, he’s never had a black mark next to his name.”

Caleb said the hairstyle allowed him to express his West African cultural roots.

“It’s very important because around here there’s not many people like me,” he said.

Mrs Blythman said the college’s “zero-tolerance policy” on uniform breaches reflected the expectations of both parents and students. 

“Breaches of correct uniform are addressed first with the student, then with the parents, to get agreement on how the problem can be addressed, including assistance for the family to purchase items, if required,” she said.

“But in the end, parents expect that we will uphold the policies and conditions that were agreed to at the time of enrollment.”

The school’s policy forbids “extreme styles” including undercuts, dreadlocks and rat-tails.

Mrs Blythman said St Joseph’s College successfully integrated students into the school from many backgrounds and strongly supported the diverse needs of students from many cultures.

“Our philosophy of teaching and of building a strong school community actively encourages independence and self-expression, but also requires a strong respect for the rules of society and the school,” she said.

“Part of the journey of growing up is for young people to learn how to successfully navigate a balance in their life that brings about the best outcomes for themselves and those around them.”

Caleb’s classmates have rallied behind him after learning he faced being kicked out of school over his African hairstyle. Two students began circulating petitions after the 14-year-old was suspended from school for refusing to cut his dreadlocks.

Caleb’s mother said she was overwhelmed by the messages of support she had received from many corners since her son was sent home from school.

“It shows what a great community we are that people have come out and shown support,” she said.

Ms Ernst said she had never experienced a problem with St Joseph’s College and praised the way its staff, other than the principal, had handled the matter.

She was hopeful the school would change its definition of “extreme hairstyles” to allow future students of African descent to braid or dreadlock their hair.

Code must not discriminate

THE Victorian Education Department says St Joseph’s College’s dress code must comply with anti-discrimination laws.

Although government school communities determine reasonable standards of dress, the Department of Education and Training requires Victorian government schools’ dress codes treat students equally and protect students against discrimination.

“Non-government schools such as St Joseph’s College are free to determine their own standards of dress and appearance as long as they comply with anti-discrimination legislation,” a department spokesman said yesterday.

Families with children in non-government schools that think their concerns have not been resolved fairly at school level can contact the Victorian Equal Opportunity and the Human Rights Commission.

Sunraysia Daily also contacted the Catholic Education Office, which governs the state’s Catholic schools, for comment but they did not respond by deadline.

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