EFFINGHAM — Last month, Nancy Marschewski asked the Unit 40 school board to change their policy on headgear to allow for Black students to wear do-rags, a garment used for protecting and managing Black hairstyles. The request came after a February incident where her son, Colin, was told to remove his do-rag, which resulted in damage to his hair.
Since then, the situation has escalated.
On April 9, Colin, an Effingham High School student, was suspended when he wore a bandana in gym class to keep his hair out of his face after seeing white students wear similar garments without issue, according to Nancy Marschewski.
After being told to remove it, Colin became upset, believing he was being targeted for policy enforcement because of his race. The reason for the suspension was “defiance of authority” and inappropriately swearing at the school and staff during the incident, according to a letter sent to the Marschewskis from the school. They do not deny the actions that resulted in the suspension.
Two weeks later, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, a prominent legal nonprofit known for civil rights cases, sent a letter to the school board and superintendent asking them to change the policy and reverse the disciplinary actions taken against Colin.
“Enforcing section 9.20 of Effingham High School’s Student Handbook, Personal Habits and Dress Code, against students of color who wear durags, is discriminatory. The policy should be changed,” reads the letter authored by Ameri Klafeta, director of the organization’s Women’s and Reproductive Rights Project.
But change didn’t come at Monday’s meeting. No action was taken on the matter.
The Unit 40 board took two votes on policies drafted by district staff in consultation with legal counsel, though both failed to pass, resulting in the issue being tabled for now. The issue might be raised again at the May 24 school board meeting.
The first option presented to the board by Unit 40 Superintendent Mark Doan would ban all headgear, with a specific exemption for religious and medical reasons.
“The administration recommendation is to go with No. 1 and maintain the substance of the current policy,” Doan said in the meeting.
In a follow-up interview, Doan said the recommendation was because of concerns about enforcement of unclear policies.
“How do you administer the policy?” asked Doan. “That is as important and complicated as passing a policy. Now you’re spending more time delineating between what’s acceptable in your classroom versus the 40 other classrooms.”
The board tied when voting on the staff-recommended policy, resulting in it not being adopted. Angie Byers, Steve Bone and Robin Klosterman voted yes and Jill Wendling, Brad Waldhoff and Jane Willenborg voted no.
The second option presented to the board by Doan would allow all headgear unless it obstructs the wearer’s face, ears or line of sight and to continue the prohibition of any garments that are lewd, vulgar, obscene, disruptive to the school environment or that promote illegal drug use.
The board split again, with Wendling, Waldhoff and Willenborg voting in favor of this policy and Byers, Bone and Klosterman voting against it.
There was no discussion among board members about the issue during Monday’s meeting.
When asked about the future of the situation, the ACLU’s Klafeta said they were considering options.
“We were hopeful that by sending the letter we would see a change,” said Klafeta in an interview. “At this point, we’re considering what the next steps are.”
The Marschewskis are also considering what to do next.
“I’m very disappointed. Very disappointed,” said Nancy Marschewski in an interview after the meeting. She is considering next steps and is communicating with the ACLU.
Nancy said though she is upset the issue was not resolved she is happy about the people offering kind words and advocacy to her and Colin.
“We have gotten a ton of support,” she said.
Nancy Marschewski added that because of the treatment he has received, Colin has changed his educational plan for the year.
“He is remote learning for the rest of the school year because he doesn’t feel safe,” she said. She explained that her son doesn’t feel physically threatened, but fears unfair treatment.
The ACLU letter, which was sent on April 23, was not included in Monday’s publicly available meeting material despite other letters to the board being included and Nancy Marschewski saying that it was her intention that the letter be read publicly.
When asked about this, Doan said the letter was distributed to the board and he was unaware of any request that it be publicly available.
“If that was the case, I made a mistake and we’ll make sure that we address it,” Doan said.
The standing policy for communications with the board is that “petitions or written correspondence to the Board shall be presented to the Board in the next regular Board packet,” per the board’s own policy documents.
It is common practice for letters to the board to be read by the board president at meetings and included digitally in the publicly available agenda. Several handwritten “thank-you” notes were read at Monday’s meeting and are publicly available.
While the issue may be addressed at the May 24 meeting of the school board, the timing of board members’ terms may delay the process further. Board president Byers’ term ended on Monday and Chad Thompson was sworn in as a new member of the board.
Klosterman was elected as the new board president, with Wendling being elected vice president and Willenborg being elected secretary.
Doan expects a new board member to be appointed at the May meeting. This turnover in board membership, Doan says, may delay a decision on the headwear issue as the new members are brought up to speed.