April 16th, 2024

Texas school legally punished Black student over hairstyle, judge says

By Juan A. Lozano, The Associated Press on February 22, 2024.

Supporters of Darryl George hold signs during a protest outside of the home of Barbers Hill Independent School District superintendent Greg Poole, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024 in Baytown, Texas. The group gathered in support ahead of a Thursday bench trial for Darryl George, a student who was punished over his hairstyle. George, who is Black and has been kept out of his regular classes since Aug. 31, 2023, says his hairstyle is protected by a new state law that prohibits race-based hair discrimination. (AP Photo/Juan Lozano)

ANAHUAC, Texas (AP) – A Black high school student’s monthslong punishment by his Texas school district for refusing to change his hairstyle does not violate a new state law that prohibits race-based hair discrimination, a judge ruled on Thursday.

Darryl George, 18, is a junior and has not been in his regular classes at his Houston-area high school since Aug. 31 because his school district, Barbers Hill, says he is violating its policy limiting the length of boys’ hair.

The district filed a lawsuit arguing George’s long hair, which he wears in tied and twisted locs on top of his head, violates its dress code policy because it would fall below his shirt collar, eyebrows or earlobes when let down. The district has said other students with locs comply with the length policy.

After just a few hours of testimony in Anahuac, state District Judge Chap Cain III ruled in favor of the school district, saying its ongoing discipline of George over the length of his hair is legal under the CROWN Act. For most of the school year, George has either served in-school suspension at Barbers Hill High School in Mont Belvieu or spent time at an off-site disciplinary program.

Dozens of people filed into the courtroom in Anahuac, outside Houston, where George and his mother, Darresha George, told reporters they were hopeful his punishment would soon end allowing him to return to regular classes.

“We’re going to get justice today,” Darresha George said. “I’m nervous but I’m happy.”

The CROWN Act, which took effect in September, prohibits race-based hair discrimination and bars employers and schools from penalizing people because of hair texture or protective hairstyles including Afros, braids, locs, twists or Bantu knots.

Attorneys for the school district did not present any witnesses. Attorney Sara Leon told Cain that the Barbers Hill dress code “is consistent with the CROWN Act” and that the policy “is race neutral.”

Allie Booker, Darryl’s George’s attorney, presented only two witnesses: Darresha George and Democratic state Rep. Ron Reynolds, one of the co-authors of the CROWN Act.

Reynolds testified that hair length was not specifically discussed when the CROWN Act was proposed but “length was inferred with the very nature of the style.”

“Anyone familiar with braids, locs, twists knows it requires a certain amount of length,” Reynolds said.

Pressed by Cain if there was anything in the legislation that talks specifically about length, Reynolds said no, but that it is “almost impossible for a person to comply with this (grooming) policy and wear that protective hairstyle.”

After Reynolds’ testimony, both sides rested their case.

George, an 18-year-old junior, has not been in his regular classroom at Barbers Hill High School in Mont Belvieu since Aug. 31. He has instead served in-school suspension and spent time in an off-site disciplinary program.

In court documents, the school district maintains its policy does not violate the CROWN Act because the law does not mention or cover hair length.

In a paid ad that ran in January in the Houston Chronicle, Barbers Hill Superintendent Greg Poole wrote that districts with a traditional dress code are safer and have higher academic performance, and that “being an American requires conformity.”

George’s family has also filed a formal complaint with the Texas Education Agency and a federal civil rights lawsuit against Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, along with the school district, alleging they failed to enforce the CROWN Act. The lawsuit is before a federal judge in Galveston.

Barbers Hill’s hair policy was also challenged in a May 2020 federal lawsuit filed by two other students. Both withdrew from the high school, but one returned after a federal judge granted a temporary injunction, saying there was “a substantial likelihood” that his rights to free speech and to be free from racial discrimination would be violated if he was not allowed to return. That lawsuit is pending.

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Follow Juan A. Lozano: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70

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