The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A little boy with dreadlocks enrolled at a fundamentalist Christian school. It didn’t go well.

A Book’s Christian Academy sent 6-year-old C.J. Stanley home on the first day of school Aug. 13 because his hair was longer than the permitted length. (Video: Clinton Stanley Sr.)

The wrath of the Internet came down on a tiny private Christian school in central Florida this week, over video of a 6-year-old being turned away on the first day of school because he has dreadlocks.

It’s one of those stories where surprisingly few facts are in dispute between C.J. Stanley’s family and the school, and somehow it still ends in calls to the police, accusations of racism and death threats.

Don’t worry — C.J. is fine, albeit perplexed as to how his hair style became fuel in a national outrage. Anyway, here’s the story of how his first week of school went all wrong.

A Book Christian Academy has been educating children in the Orlando suburbs since 1971, the school’s administrator Sue Book told The Washington Post.

And at no point in those 47 years has any boy been allowed to have long hair in class.

“I still have the same rules I always had,” Book said. “The girls wear skirts, the boys wear trousers, hair above their ears and off their collars.”

This sounds extremely plausible. The school was founded by Book’s husband, the Rev. John Butler Book, who the Orlando Sentinel once wrote is “trying to save Central Florida from the same fate as Sodom, both inside his school and out.”

In an old TV sermon that’s made its way to YouTube, you can hear the fundamentalist reverend pine for the days when women wore dresses — before they “began to listen to the fashion artists, many of which were homosexuals, and they began to dress like men.”

Clinton Stanley Sr. is religious, too, in his own way.

“We believe in God, I believe in the most high, I believe in the Bible,” he said from his home in Apopka, just north of Orlando — the same city where the reverend built his school.

Now a 36-year-old barbecue caterer, Stanley was no more than a baby in the reverend’s hey day. He had his son just six years ago.

That would be Clinton Jr., better known as C.J.

When C.J. was four years old, Stanley said, the boy started asking for dreadlocks. His godfather had them, so he wanted them, too.

“When he wants something, he’s got to meet his requirements,” Stanley said. “His requirements were he had to learn how to spell. I said, ‘You learn these words, you get your hair twisted.’

“He loved it.”

C.J. wore the dreads through kindergarten, and was still in love with them in the summer, when Stanley and his wife decided to switch him to a smaller, more hands-on school.

So they got a scholarship through a state program to help with the tuition, and enrolled him in Book Christian: 48 students, about half a dozen teachers — counting the piano teacher and Sue Book.

Here comes the dispute, such as it is.

Book said the family was given a copy of the parent handbook when they enrolled, which spells out as plain as day: “All boys hair must be a tapered cut, off the collar and ears. There are to be no dreads, Mohawks, designs, unnatural color, or unnatural designs.”

A valedictorian went rogue in his final speech. His school tried to shut him down.

Stanley said he’d never seen the book before Monday, on what was supposed to be C.J.’s first day of first grade.

“Or else I’d have never put my son through this embarrassment,” he said.

C.J. woke up overexcited that morning, he recalled. “You’re talking about a kid that loves to be around other kids,” he said.

They pulled up to Book Christian shortly after sunrise. C.J. was strapped into his backpack and toting a little lunch pouch. He wore the tie and an embroidered button-down shirt his dad had ordered from the school. His dreadlocks bobbed on either side of the collar.

“I tucked his shirt in,” Stanley said. “We went to the door so we could meet the teacher.”

As he recalled, it was the reverend himself who stopped them in the front office. “He said, ‘Take him home and take him to a haircut,” Stanley said.

Sue Book said it was actually she who explained that C.J.’s dreads were not permitted.

“They knew the rules when they came in,” she said.

At no point in his son’s life, Stanley said, had he ever talked to the boy about race.

“We’re all one people,” he said. “I always tell him to treat people nice.”

As it happens, Sue Book holds much the same philosophy. She said the vast majority of her students are black, but she never actually did the math before this week. “Even when the census people came from Atlanta,” she said. “I don’t care what color they are.”

But as he stood in Book’s office listening to her employees cite a rule book paragraph about “unnatural” hair, Stanley said, he wondered how he would explain to C.J. that his curls were forbidden.

“You’re natural!” he remembered thinking. “It’s natural.”

And then, just as he was about to walk his son back to the car with his un-enrollment papers, he turned around, opened the Facebook Live app on his phone, and took a deep sigh.

“If that’s not bias, I don’t know what is,” he said to the camera.

My so was told he can't attend school with his hair…. A Book's Christian Academy ) #✂️HAIRorDONTGET

Posted by Clinton Stanley Sr. on Monday, August 13, 2018

C.J. stood, silent and wide-eyed in front of a “No Solicitors” sign while his father spoke for the next eight minutes — to the tense-shouldered office staff, and Sue Book back in the classroom he couldn’t enter, and whoever else in the world might be listening.

“Can I braid it up? Is that okay?” Stanley asked a woman at the desk.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “It’s in our handbook. Has to be above the ears.”

“Handbooks!” Stanley said, his words coming slow and soft with apparent astonishment. “Wow, wow, wow.”

There was more talk of paperwork. Stanley said he understood the rules, but the rules were wrong. A haircut was out of the question, anyway. He asked to un-enroll his son.

“I don’t even want him here. Period,” he said.

“Okay,” said the woman at the desk.

“Let’s go, man,” Stanley said, and walked C.J. back to the car to tell his wife what happened.

“Can I braid it up in a pony tail?” C.J. asked when they were on the other side of the parking lot.

“Can’t,” Stanley said. “No dreadlocks, son. No dreads.”

Only at the very end of his video did Stanley show any anger.

“And they’re supposed to be Christian!” he said, turning the camera on his own face. “In their book it says God has hair ‘like wool’. They’re supposed to be Christian! Get the f— out of here.”

Stanley said he never saw any police, but Sue Book said she called the sheriff’s office because he kept standing on school property, complaining to other parents.

Unfortunately, the administrator said, she’d feel the need to call the police again in the days to come — once the death threats started.

Stanley has no idea how hundreds of thousands of people found his Facebook video, but they did: enraged parents and outraged activists.  The school’s Facebook page was bombed with bad reviews (Typical: “Horrible staff and horrible policies. Racism at its finest.”)

Then came the press.

“Obviously, I’m not a racist,” the Rev. Book told NBC-2 WESH on Tuesday. “In our school, our song is: Jesus loves the little children of the world, red and yellow black and white, they are precious in his sight.”

By Wednesday, the story had gone national, and Sue Book had to find a volunteer to teach her class so she could spend the day answering nonstop phone calls.

“They’re calling me everything under the sun,” she said when The Post called. “I’m getting it from everywhere, all parts of the country. Most of them do not speak intelligently. I bear with them until they start using the four-letter words. Then I’ll lay the phone down and play Christian music.”

Five sheriff’s deputies had to come by on the second day of classes to keep an eye on the place, Sue Book said. She was expecting a protest in front of the school at any moment.

Asked how her 48 students were handling the crisis, she walked the phone into her Grade 5-7 classroom and called out: “Are you happy?”

“Yes ma’am!” the children cried in unison.

“Does it matter what color you are to me?” Book asked the class.

“No ma’am!” they said.

“What’s my rule about color?” she asked.

The children’s chorus replied after a moment’s hesitation: “It doesn’t matter!”

It does to Stanley, now. Between catering jobs, he’s now organizing a community meeting “to discuss discrimination policies that target Black hair and Black children in schools.” And his supporters are trying to start a petition that would pull the Books’ state funding unless they change their half-century old hair policy.

But that’s all grown-up stuff. As for C.J. — Stanley said he and his wife enrolled the boy in public school as soon as they drove away from Book Christian. So he didn’t miss much school.

The classes are more crowded than Stanley would like, and there will be no Bible lessons for C.J. this year. But that’s okay. He gets to keep his haircut, and whatever else he took away from a school he’ll likely never see again.

“It’s over for him,” Stanley said. “He said, ‘Dad. That was just this morning. Why are we still talking about it?’”

“It was hard to explain,” the father recalled. “I said, ‘It’s something that needs to be talked about. Like, you don’t understand right now. You’ll understand it later.’”

More reading:

The owner of the Red Hen explains why she asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave

A valedictorian went rogue in his final speech. His school tried to shut him down.