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Texas made it illegal to punish students for dreadlocks. A school is testing the limits of the law

Buttons and t-shirts promoting legislation prohibiting discrimination of hair texture or styles commonly associated with race were on display at a press conference in Houston in 2020.
Michael Stravato
/
The Texas Tribune
Buttons and t-shirts promoting legislation prohibiting discrimination of hair texture or styles commonly associated with race were on display at a press conference in Houston in 2020.

Less than one month after Texas’ CROWN Act went into effect, the same school district that largely prompted the law’s creation is delivering its first major test.

Darryl George, a junior at Barbers Hill High School in Chambers County, has garnered national media attention after he served more than two weeks of in-school suspension for his dreadlocks, which school officials said violate the district’s dress code.

The dress code sets guidelines for how long male students’ hair can be, while the CROWN Act outlaws discrimination of hair texture or styles commonly associated with race. George’s suspension has sparked questions about the legality of punishing students for the length of their hair and the extent of the CROWN Act’s protections.

What does the CROWN Act say — and not say?

Texas’ CROWN Act — an acronym for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair” — outlaws discrimination on the basis of “hair texture or protective hairstyles associated with race.” Texas was the 22nd state to implement a version of the law, which went into effect Sept. 1.

The law states that “protective hairstyle” includes braids, locks and twists. It does not, however, mention anything about hair length.

The act, authored by state Rep. Rhetta Bowers, D-Garland, was largely spurred by Black student experiences with hair discrimination.

De’Andre Arnold, a Barbers Hill High School student, drew national attention and the support of activists across the country in 2020 after district administrators suspended him for the length of his dreadlocks. De’Andre was told he needed to cut his hair to comply with the district’s policy, and his family filed a discrimination lawsuit against the district before he switched schools.

What does Barbers Hill’s dress code say?

The district’s policystates male students’ hair cannot, at any time, extend below the eyebrows, earlobes, or the top of a T-shirt collar. Male students’ hair also may not “be gathered or worn in a style” that would allow hair to fall to these lengths “when let down.”

The policy makes no mention of protective hairstyles or those associated with race.

The Houston Landing reviewed dress code policies for dozens of Greater Houston school districts and found one other district, Devers ISD, that had a policy regulating hair length.

Darryl wears his dreadlocks in a twisted style at the top of his head. District officials said they cannot provide information about discipline issued to a student, including whether school leaders disciplined Darryl because his hair fell past his T-shirt, eyes or earlobes when let down.

Conflicting arguments on CROWN Act protections

In short, the standoff comes down to whether Darryl’s dreadlocks are a protected hairstyle, and if so, whether Barbers Hill Independent School District officials can regulate the length of a protected hairstyle.

The law states that “protective hairstyle” includes braids, locks and twists. It does not, however, mention anything about hair length.

The act, authored by state Rep. Rhetta Bowers, D-Garland, was largely spurred by Black student experiences with hair discrimination.

De’Andre Arnold, a Barbers Hill High School student, drew national attention and the support of activists across the country in 2020 after district administrators suspended him for the length of his dreadlocks. De’Andre was told he needed to cut his hair to comply with the district’s policy, and his family filed a discrimination lawsuit against the district before he switched schools.

What does Barbers Hill’s dress code say?

The district’s policystates male students’ hair cannot, at any time, extend below the eyebrows, earlobes, or the top of a T-shirt collar. Male students’ hair also may not “be gathered or worn in a style” that would allow hair to fall to these lengths “when let down.”

The policy makes no mention of protective hairstyles or those associated with race.

The Houston Landing reviewed dress code policies for dozens of Greater Houston school districts and found one other district, Devers ISD, that had a policy regulating hair length.

Darryl wears his dreadlocks in a twisted style at the top of his head. District officials said they cannot provide information about discipline issued to a student, including whether school leaders disciplined Darryl because his hair fell past his T-shirt, eyes or earlobes when let down.

Conflicting arguments on CROWN Act protections

In short, the standoff comes down to whether Darryl’s dreadlocks are a protected hairstyle, and if so, whether Barbers Hill Independent School District officials can regulate the length of a protected hairstyle.

Allie Booker, a lawyer representing Darryl, argues that Barbers Hill’s dress code violates the CROWN Act and fails to recognize his hair as a protective style. The district maintains that its rules do not violate the CROWN Act, a Barbers Hill spokesperson said.

In an interview last week with the Dallas-area television station WFAA, Bowers said the law is “strongly about protective hairstyles,” but it is “not about length and it’s not about color of hair.”

However, Bowers called Darryl’s punishment “a CROWN Act violation” on social media last week. Multiple efforts to reach Bowers were not successful Monday.

What happens next?

George received another in-school suspension Monday after returning to school with his hair unchanged, the Associated Press reported, signaling the district’s firmness on its hair policy.

But Darryl and his family are also holding firm. He plans to keep his dreadlocks at their current length and will not cut his hair to be in compliance, Booker said. Darryl’s hair has his family member’s dreadlocks intertwined with his own and has personal and cultural significance, his attorney said.

“The locs pay homage to those who have come before us, and they remind us of who we are and from whence we have come,” Booker said. “It is a part of our culture and our heritage. We are people who have been beaten, enslaved and downtrodden.”

Darryl’s family will pursue a lawsuit and a potential injunction to push back against the district’s policy, Booker said.

This article first appeared on Houston Landing.