Black student suspended for locs hairstyle days after Crown Act takes effect

Darryl George is just weeks into his junior year at his suburban Houston high school, but the 17-year-old has seen little of his friends or regular teachers. Instead of going to class and playing football after school, George has spent nearly two weeks on in-school suspension as he challenges a dress-code policy that has prohibited him from wearing his hair in locs.

George and his supporters say the Barbers Hill Independent School District in Mont Belvieu, Tex., roughly 30 miles east of Houston, is violating the state’s CROWN Act, the very week the law focused on curbing hair style and texture discrimination took effect.

Across the country, at least 24 states now have versions of the CROWN Act, which stands for “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” to staunch long-standing discrimination that Black people in particular have faced in workplace or school settings. At the same time, school hair and dress-related codes more broadly are facing scrutiny from civil rights advocates who say such rules have the potential to discriminate along racial, cultural or religious grounds as well as enforce outdated gender stereotypes.

The teen was given dress-code citations before being first placed on in-school suspension on Aug. 31, his mother, Darresha George, told The Washington Post. That suspension was extended, and the family’s attorney, Allie Booker, said the teen has until next week to cut his hair or be forced to attend an alternative school.

While on in-school suspension, Darresha George said her son is not able to get the proper instruction he needs or work with his regular teacher. He can’t socialize with anyone and can’t join the football team because of his suspension, and the only time he can leave the in-school suspension room is to use the restroom, she told The Washington Post.

“He’s very frustrated, he’s aggravated,” the elder George said. “He’s not giving up the fight because he doesn’t want others behind him to have to go through this.”

The district told the elder George its policy does not violate the CROWN Act since the law doesn’t apply to hair length. Booker, the family attorney, said the district has not provided evidence that Darryl’s hair is disrupting the learning environment and said the family is likely to pursue legal action.

Neither Barbers Hill ISD Superintendent Greg Poole nor Barbers Hill High School Principal Lance Murphy responded to requests for comment Wednesday. A district spokesperson told KTRK, an ABC affiliate in Houston, that George’s suspension is because of his hair length, not its style. According to the district dress-code policy, boys may not wear long hair and must keep it shorter than their eyebrows and earlobes.

But the Texas lawmakers who helped pass the bipartisan law this spring aren’t convinced, saying the district is violating the spirit of the CROWN Act and skirting the law by arguing over hair length, said state Rep. Ron Reynolds (D), who chairs the Texas Legislative Black Caucus and who co-authored the Texas law.

“What they’re really saying is you’ll never be able to wear [this style],” Reynolds told The Post, noting that many natural hairstyles need to be of a certain length to have something to twist, braid or loc. “It’s hard to say you can wear locs but you want them to be very short; that’s not really how it works.”

Reynolds said that while he has no issue with schools creating dress codes to maintain a level of decorum — schools regularly prohibit students from wearing hats, bare midriffs and clothes with offensive slogans, for instance — policies that make no room for racial, ethnic or cultural expression creates a “superiority” around Eurocentric standards.

“It’s really saying we don’t find your heritage, your hair expression to be acceptable,” Reynolds said. Instead, students such as George must “conform or suffer the consequences.”

George’s ordeal is a familiar one to other Black families in a district that is overwhelmingly White.

Three years before the CROWN Act passed, the school suspended De’Andre Arnold and Kaden Bradford for keeping their hair in dreadlocks. Like George, both students were placed on in-school suspension and would be forced into an alternative school unless they cut their hair.

Arnold, then an 18-year-old senior, would also be barred from prom and graduation if he did not cut his hair and ultimately transferred to a different school district. But Bradford, who was then 16, sued the district, alleging that the policy violated his civil rights on First and Fourteenth Amendment grounds. In 2021, a federal court granted an injunction that prevented the district from enforcing the hair length policy against Bradford. The case is ongoing.

Reynolds and others said it’s especially galling that the very school that prompted the creation of the CROWN Act is also the first to allegedly violate it.

“We have this one school district that wants to be defiant. That’s how we know we’re singling these students out,” Reynolds said, noting that at least one other Texas school district has backed off dress-code policy enforcement due to the CROWN Act.

Across the country, dress codes are increasingly being challenged for discriminating on the basis of gender, culture or other identifiers. Dress codes that enforce gender stereotypes — such as requiring short hair only for boys or prohibiting them from wearing certain jewelry — are particularly fraught given their potential for overlapping claims of discrimination, said Jennesa Calvo-Friedman, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project.

In Colorado, a federal court is reviewing a case in which a kindergarten boy was suspended for wearing an earring to school. In North Carolina, a charter school came under fire for demanding that a first-grade boy who is a member of the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe and wears his hair long for religious and cultural reasons cut his hair to be in compliance with the school’s grooming standards.

“The fundamental point for us is that, a kid’s hair or the way their hair grows out of their head doesn’t have anything to do with their ability to learn,” Calvo-Friedman said. “We think that’s unlawful for any kid, but it harms kids who don’t want to adhere to outdated notions of what gender should look like, or kids who want to demonstrate their cultural identity through locs or hairstyle that aren’t seen by people in power as acceptable.”

A wrestler was forced to cut his dreadlocks before a match. His town is still looking for answers.

While private schools have greater leeway to dictate dress and grooming standards, public schools like Barbers Hill that receive federal funding risk running afoul of discrimination laws unless they can demonstrate “an overwhelmingly persuasive purpose” for the rules, Calvo-Friedman said.

Candace Matthews, a Texas-based civil rights activist with the New Black Panther Nation who is advocating for the George family, said that for students like Darryl who wear their hair in locs, it’s about much more than being stylish.

“It’s personal because it’s your heritage, it’s your culture; this is from our ancestors. How dare [they] try to rip that from us,” Matthews said.

“You don’t see us trying to control White people’s hair,” she added. “So why are [they] trying to control ours?”

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