On the first day of Black History Month, Durham School of Creative Studies (SCS) students Natalia Artigas, Assata Goff and Naima Harrell showed up to school with their heads wrapped in geles, a colorful fabric many black women wind around their hair as a sign of cultural pride.
"We were all very excited," Artigas said. "We all looked beautiful in our head-wraps."
Then, Artigas says school administrators told some of the students they had to take them off. As headgear, administrators said, the geles violated the student dress code.
"And that's when everything started," Artigas said.
The students' parents took issue with the way the incident was handled. They say the dress code should have a cultural exemption for apparel like the gele, and that the headgear restriction as it stands is not consistently enforced.
"There are other students within the school that are wearing things on their head in different fashions, yet this group and these girls had to remove it," Artigas' mother, Oseye Laing, said.
A group of about 20 parents and community members rallied outside the SCS Monday afternoon in support of the students' decision to wear the gele to school.
On Thursday night, parents spoke out at a Durham school board work session.
"We reject the notion that they [students] must notify administration before expressing their culture," said Assata Goff's mother, Afiya Carter, "and that they were causing a disturbance by expressing themselves in a nonviolent way."
Carter explained that the gele holds a place of deep significance in African-American culture.
"The gele or head-wrap is a symbol of pride," Carter told the board. "We have pictures of me when I was very young, like three years old, with a gele on. We have pictures of my mother with geles on. We have multiple pictures and memories of celebrating ourselves and celebrating our culture with our heads covered."
Parents demanded the board revise the dress code with community input to include a cultural exemption.
"We do believe that it is possible to include cultural expression in the wording of the dress code policy and that it can be done in a way that is very inclusive and effective," said parent Joy Harrell-Goff, whose daughter Naima Harrell arrived at school wearing the gele.
The board stood by SCS principal Renee Price's decision to enforce the dress code.
"We really thank our principal for upholding our current policy, which doesn't have an exemption for cultural attire," said board chair Heidi Carter.
But they acknowledged the need for change.
"This certainly did not happen the way we would have wanted it to happen," Durham superintendent Bert L'Homme said. "But on the other hand, I think Ms. Price and her staff, once it was discovered that this was happening, have done an excellent job of turning it around to a very, very powerful learning situation."
DPS officials say Price and her administration allowed the students students to hold an event at school Monday where they taught other girls how to wear the gele.
Students and parents say the issue goes beyond the incident, and have started a hash-tag on social media: #itsbiggerthanaheadwrap.
"What the girls allowed us to do was to open the door and really get to the heart of what this issue is with the dress code policy, which is an issue of equity and inclusiveness," Joy Harrell-Goff said in an interview after the meeting.
"There is some institutionalized racism and white privilege that have to be addressed in order for us to really get to the root of how this policy should be worded---and why it's upsetting not to have the freedom to express our culture in a way that's not described as disruptive or divisive or needing permission," she said.
The school board assigned a task-force that is already revising the student code of conduct to look into how the dress code could be changed to include cultural exemptions. The new student code of conduct is planned to go into effect on July 1.