When a Chicago mom's son faced hair discrimination at school, she decided to take action. Now their story is helping to enact real change on a statewide level.

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An image collage of Gus “Jett” Hawkins.
Credit: Courtesy of Ida Nelson.

When 4-year-old Gus "Jett" Hawkins went to school with his hair in braids in March, he was excited to show off his new hairstyle. But the next day his mother received a call from the Chicago-based school's administrators claiming the boy had violated the school's code of conduct.

His mother, Ida Nelson, switched her son's hairstyle to a ponytail bun instead, but she received yet another call from the school claiming that this hairstyle was also unacceptable.

The mother opted to share her family's story on social media and her posts gained a lot of attention, even from Illinois State Sen. Mike Simmons. But as Nelson points out, this is much bigger than not allowing a student to wear a certain hairstyle.

"When you send a message to a child that something about them is unacceptable, like their hair, they start to [think about] other things, like their skin color, the economic status of their lives. All of these things feed into their identity, their sense of self, and the sense that something about [them] is not enough," Nelson tells Parents.com. "It plays into a lot of the other issues that are going on with kids."

Nelson points to statistics showing suicide attempts among black adolescents increased by 73 percent between 1991 and 2017. "I had to start thinking, 'Why are children of color feeling like their life is not worth living?' Well, it comes from that place of 'something about me is not good enough,'" says Nelson. "Instead of being embraced and celebrated, they're punished for things that are really just a part of their culture."

This is why school's rules like these are so problematic, Nelson points out. "Your hair is under the zero tolerance policy and is something you can be expelled from school for?" she says. "It makes you feel like you need to change who you are, something that is innate, in order to be able to exist within this society. Why are we sending this message to children? Body autonomy and self-expression are extremely important to build up in children."

This mom's mission has gained traction. Sen. Simmons agreed and quickly got involved. "When I saw a 4-year-old child had been traumatized like this in a school setting, it just infuriated me, and I said, 'Alright, I'm a state senator now. I got a responsibility to act on it,'" Sen. Simmons told CBS Chicago. "I wear my hair how I want to wear it. I want that exact same thing for kids in schools."

After seeing Nelson's story, Sen. Simmons drafted the Jett Hawkins Act, which bans schools from policing certain hairstyles that are tied to racial or ethnic identity among students. In May, the bill passed the Illinois house.

This is a move that will hopefully save countless kids from experiencing the unfair—and, quite frankly, racist—discrimination this young boy faced, which sadly isn't the first time a student has gone through this.

This also isn't the first law of its kind: The CROWN Act is a law that prohibits race-based discrimination, and it has been officially enacted in parts of the country.

"Adults can no longer sit around and allow the status quo to destroy our babies," says Nelson. "We must end discriminatory policies, for which 4 year olds are not even exempt, from schools all across America."