Family of Black high school student suspended for hairstyle sues Texas officials

The family of a Black student who was suspended from his high school over his hairstyle filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Saturday against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the state's attorney general, alleging they failed to enforce a new state law that outlaws discrimination on hairstyles.

Darryl George, a 17-year-old student at Barbers Hill High School in Mont Belvieu, Texas, has been serving an in-school suspension since Aug. 31 after school officials said his dreadlocks violated the district's dress and grooming code. Although the district's policy does not prohibit dreadlocks or braids, it states that male students cannot "be gathered or worn in a style that would allow the hair to extend below the top of a t-shirt collar, below the eyebrows, or below the ear lobes when let down."

But George's mother, Darresha George, and Allie Booker, the family's attorney, have denied that the teenager's hairstyle violates the district's policy. George has twisted dreadlocks tied on top of his head that he wears as an "outward expression of his Black identity and culture," according to the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

The lawsuit and supporters of George allege that his ongoing suspension is a violation of Texas' CROWN Act, a new law that is intended to prohibit "discrimination on the basis of hair texture or protective hairstyle associated with race," according to state Rep. Rhetta Bowers, who authored the bill.

The suit also alleges that Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton have failed to enforce the law, which went into effect on Sept. 1 — a day after George was suspended. The lawsuit alleges that the state leaders did not protect George's constitutional and state rights, and allowed the school district to violate the CROWN Act.

The lawsuit is seeking a temporary restraining order and an injunction to stop George's suspension while the case is in federal court.

"Time to bring the fight to Barbers Hill ISD. We're going to drop the hammer of accountability in the face of racism," Candice Matthews, national minister of politics for the New Black Panther Nation and a spokesperson for George's family, said in a statement to The Associated Press on Saturday.

Gov. Abbott and the attorney general did not immediately respond to USA TODAY's request for comment.

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Lawsuit says school policy 'disproportionately impacts Black males'

Since Aug. 31, George has been in an in-school suspension, where he is required to sit on a stool for eight hours in a cubicle, the lawsuit alleges. The teenager was then denied a hot lunch that he's qualified to receive as part of the free lunch program.

"(George) should be permitted to wear his hair in the manner in which he wears it (which is gathered in a style above his ear lobes, shirt collar, and eyebrows) because the so-called neutral grooming policy has no close association with learning or safety and when applied, disproportionately impacts Black males as a protected class," Booker wrote in the lawsuit.

The allegations are under investigation by the Texas Education Agency after it received a formal complaint from George's mother and Booker on Tuesday. The complaint also alleges that Barbers Hill Independent School District officials violated the CROWN Act and have mistreated George over his hair.

In response, the school district filed its own lawsuit on Wednesday, asking a judge to clarify whether its policy violates the law.

"The district does not intend to enhance the current disciplinary action against the student for the ongoing violation of its grooming policy pending the court’s ruling on whether the district’s policy is legal," the district said in a statement to KTRK-TV.

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Texas' CROWN Act

The CROWN Act, an acronym for "Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair," bans race-related hair discrimination and is intended to address educational and employment discrimination against Black people. Some hairstyles and hair textures described in the act include tightly coiled or tightly curled, dreadlocks, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, and Afros.

Texas is one of 24 states that have enacted a version of the CROWN Act and a federal version passed in the U.S. House in March 2022 but was blocked by the Senate.

In a statement Friday, Bowers said George's hairstyle is protected by the new law. She called on the school district to revise its dress code to comply with the CROWN Act and to end George's suspension.

"The Texas CROWN Act was passed to prevent situations like this, and it is very disappointing to see Barbers Hill ISD attempt to find loopholes to skirt the law and perpetuate hair discrimination," Bowers said in the statement.

“I support any and all means necessary to bring justice, proper enforcement and implementation to all school districts and places of employment when it comes to compliance with the Texas CROWN Act," she added. "We will continue to advocate for Darryl George and educate the general public as to the protections of this new law – standing up for anyone that is treated unfairly and discriminated against in any way."

School faced similar complaint in 2020

Barbers Hill High School has previously faced legal action over its dress code in recent years. In 2020, two other Black male students, DeAndre Arnold and Kaden Bradford, sued the school district after officials told them to cut their hair.

Arnold and Bradford were told by school officials that they would not be allowed to participate in their regular classes or school activities because of their hair. The students' families asked the school for an exception to the dress code, noting that Arnold and Bradford had worn natural hairstyles for years and that it was an expression of their heritage.

After refusing to cut their hair to conform to the school's policy, both students were suspended indefinitely and expelled from the school, according to the Legal Defense Fund, which represented the students in their lawsuit. Arnold was also ultimately banned from attending his high school graduation.

The school board voted unanimously against changing its dress code in July 2020 but in the following month, a judge granted the Legal Defense Fund's request to allow Bradford to return to school while the lawsuit moved through court.

A federal judge later ruled the district's policy as discriminatory. The case, which drew national attention and remains pending, incentivized Texas lawmakers to pass the state's CROWN Act.

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Family of Black student in Texas sues over hair discrimination