Eight-year-old Marian Scott loved her red hair extensions, which she had worn on and off since the start of the school year. But when it came time for school photos at her charter school in Jackson, Mich., Marian was told that her hair was a violation of the dress code and she wouldn't be photographed, according to her father, Doug Scott.
The experience was crushing for the high-spirited third grader, her father said: "Marian felt she wasn't acceptable." But Marian recently got a confidence boost, thanks to professional photographer Jermaine Horton, of Naperville, who drove nine hours round-trip to Michigan, so Marian could enjoy a deluxe photo shoot with studio backdrops and wardrobe changes.
"She's a natural," said Horton. "She's a beautiful little soul."
Marian's father, who is black, said he believes the school dress code was not applied fairly to children of different races and skin colors.
"There were two kids this year who took pictures with Mohawks, and one had green in his hair," he said. "My daughter's one of the darkest in the school, and even some children that were light-skinned black like myself, they had different colors in their hair, and the school allowed that."
An official at the school, Paragon Charter Academy referred the Tribune to a written statement quoting the student handbook.
"Hair color must be of natural tones," the handbook says. "Head bands must be solid white, navy, hunter green, or black. Students must be in school uniform for fall pictures and any re-takes. Students not in school uniform will not be allowed to have their pictures taken."
The written statement concluded, "We take great care to ensure our families are well-informed about this policy, and also work closely with students and their parents if there's a concern. We understand the importance of good communication in helping strengthen the partnership we have with our families, and will continue to make this a priority to create a school environment where everyone is valued and has their voice heard."
Marian was a little nervous when she arrived at the Nov. 9 photo shoot, but Horton played her favorite musician, Ariana Grande, and soon Marian was dancing with Horton's children, My'Jey, 7, and Jeremiah, 3. "You could just see her smiling, laughing, being a kid," Horton said.
During the shoot, he encouraged Marian to express her deeper emotions, telling her she could yell if she wanted. "She put her foot forward, she leaned back, she looked right at the light, and she gave out this great warrior scream," Horton said. That photo was among those that touched a nerve with supporters.
Scott said that he looked back at four years of yearbook photos at Paragon Charter Academy, which Marian no longer attends, and found many examples of dress code violations that officials had allowed. Horton said he had heard of other hairstyle controversies involving black children, but they occurred in far-off states or during wedding season when it is difficult for him to free up his schedule. When he heard about Marian, he called her dad.
"I was very surprised," said Doug Scott. "It put me in tears. It was unbelievable." Horton was moved as well: "As a father, you want to protect your little girls," he said. "Your boys _ you want to be there for them, too, but your little girls: it's just something different. You've got to go the extra mile."
Horton reached out to his friend Pamela Blackman, of Joy Entertainment + Event Management, who went out and bought dresses for the photo shoot. Fashion designer Mieka Joi also donated outfits. Marian, who loves gymnastics, dancing and doing her nails, rose to the occasion at the photo shoot and ended up having a great time, her father said.
Horton, galvanized by Marian's treatment and a CNN report on a 4-year-old Texas boy whose family was told his hair was too long for preschool, decided to start the Art of Confidence Project, in which he will photograph black kids who are punished for their hairstyles.
In the wake of the controversy, Marian's dad and her mom, LaToya Howard, have moved her to a different school. Marian's still too young to understand everything that's going on, they said, but in the long run, they hope that she learns that she doesn't ever have to accept injustice.
"If she thinks a rule is wrong, I want her to stand up for herself," said Doug Scott. "I want her to know that not just myself, but many people in the past _ women, blacks, underprivileged folks of all colors _ have stood up for themselves and made it, and you can do the same thing."
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