Family of Black high school student files federal lawsuit over hair discrimination

The family of a Black high school student in Texas who was suspended over his dreadlocks filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Saturday against the state’s governor and attorney general, alleging they failed to enforce a new law outlawing discrimination based on hairstyles.

Darryl George, 17, a junior at Barbers Hill high school in Mont Belvieu, has been serving an in-school suspension since 31 August. Officials with the Houston-area school say his dreadlocks fall below his eyebrows and ear lobes and violate the district’s dress code.

George’s mother, Darresha George, and the family’s attorney deny that the teenager’s hairstyle violates the dress code, saying his hair is neatly tied in twisted dreadlocks on top of his head.

Darryl George’s supporters allege the ongoing suspension by the Barbers Hill independent school district violates the state’s Crown Act, short for Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, which took effect 1 September.

The lawsuit also alleges that Greg Abbott, the Texas governor, and Ken Paxton, the attorney general, have failed in their official duties to protect George’s constitutional rights against discrimination and against violations of George’s freedom of speech and expression.

George “should be permitted to wear his hair in the manner in which he wears it … because the so-called neutral grooming policy has no close association with learning or safety and when applied, disproportionately impacts Black males,” Allie Booker, the family’s attorney, wrote in the lawsuit.

A Black teenage boy, with thick dreadlocks elaborately arranged away from his hairline, so that his entire face is completely visible, wears a black hoodie and backpack and looks over his right hair.
Darryl George, a 17-year-old junior, in front of Barbers Hill high school, on 18 September 2023, in Mont Belvieu, Texas. Photograph: Michael Wyke/AP

Spokespeople for Abbott and Paxton, both Republicans, did not immediately return emails seeking comment Saturday.

The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order to stop George’s in-school suspension while the case is in court.

The lawsuit, filed in Houston federal court by George’s mother, is the latest legal action taken related to the suspension.

On Tuesday, Darresha George and her attorney filed a formal complaint with the Texas education agency, alleging Darryl George is being harassed and mistreated by school district officials over his hair and that his in-school suspension violates the Crown Act.

They allege that during his suspension, George is forced to sit for eight hours on a stool and that he’s being denied the hot free lunch he’s qualified to receive. The education agency is investigating.

Darresha George said she was recently hospitalized after a series of panic and anxiety attacks brought on from stress related to her son’s suspension.

The school district filed its own lawsuit in state court Wednesday asking a judge to clarify whether its dress code restrictions limiting student hair length for boys violates the Crown Act.

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Greg Poole, the Barbers Hill superintendent, has said he believes the dress code is legal and teaches students to conform as a sacrifice benefiting everyone.

The school district said it would not enhance the current punishment against Darryl George while it waits for a ruling on its lawsuit.

The Crown Act is intended to prohibit race-based hair discrimination and bars employers and schools from penalizing people because of hair texture or protective hairstyles, including Afros, braids, dreadlocks, twists or Bantu knots. Texas is one of 24 states that have enacted a version of the act.

A federal version passed in the US House last year but was not successful in the Senate.

George’s school previously clashed with two other Black male students over the dress code.

Barbers Hill officials told cousins De’Andre Arnold and Kaden Bradford they had to cut their dreadlocks in 2020. The two students’ families sued the school district in May 2020, and a federal judge later ruled the district’s hair policy was discriminatory.

Their case, which garnered national attention and remains pending, helped spur Texas lawmakers to approve the state’s CROWN Act. Both students withdrew from the school, with Bradford returning after the judge’s ruling.

The Guardian