Fate of lawsuit filed by Black Texas student punished over hairstyle in hands of federal judge

A federal judge did not issue an immediate ruling on Thursday after hearing legal arguments over whether to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a Black high school student who has alleged racial and gender discrimination over his monthslong punishment by his Texas school district for refusing to change his hairstyle.

Darryl George, 18, has not been in his regular Houston-area high school classes since Aug. 31 because the district, Barbers Hill, says the length of his hair violates its dress code.

The district has argued that George’s long hair, which he wears to school in tied and twisted locs on top of his head, violates its 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.

Darryl George and his mother, Darresha George, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit last year over his punishment against the school district, the district superintendent, his principal and assistant principal as well as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The lawsuit alleges the defendants have taken part in or failed to prevent racial and gender discrimination against George through his ongoing punishment over his hairstyle.

“I’m just happy that we’re here. We finally made it here. This is another stepping stone we have to cross. It’s been a long road and we will just be in this fight,” Darresha George said after Thursday’s court hearing.

The suit alleges George’s punishment also violates the CROWN Act, a new state law that prohibits race-based hair discrimination. The CROWN Act, which took effect in September, bars employers and schools from penalizing people because of hair texture or protective hairstyles including Afros, braids, locs, twists or Bantu knots.

The suit also alleges George’s First Amendment rights to free speech and expression are being violated. For most of the school year, George, a junior, has either served in-school suspension at Barbers Hill High School in Mont Belvieu or spent time at an off-site disciplinary program.

Allie Booker, George’s attorney, on Thursday told U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Brown the district’s policy is discriminatory and not race neutral. Booker alleged the school district was making religious exemptions for length of hair, but was not following the CROWN Act by not offering race-based protections.

Booker also argued the school district didn’t have clearly defined policies on why girls could be allowed to have long hair but boys could not.

Brown asked if there was any case law that indicated hair length is protected as expressive conduct under the First Amendment. Booker said she had not found any but said George’s lawsuit is a precedent-setting case and that self-expression in the form of a hair style does not have to be strictly tied to religious belief in order to be granted protection under the law.

“It’s not about the length of hair, it’s about acceptance for all in the same manner,” Booker said after the court hearing.

Jonathan Brush, an attorney for the Barbers Hill school district, repeatedly told Brown the district’s policy is race neutral and that George’s lawsuit had not shown a sufficient pattern of racial discrimination by the district.

Brush said having different hair length restrictions for boys and girls “does not constitute discrimination” and the district’s hair length policy would “pass muster” in the workplace and the military.

Brush also said George’s First Amendment rights weren’t being violated because the student failed to show “his hairstyle communicates a message to the world.”

Darresha George has said her son’s hairstyle has cultural and religious importance to him. Historians say that braids and other hairstyles carry cultural significance for many African Americans.

Brown said he was inclined to dismiss Abbott and Paxton from the lawsuit as well as some of the claims filed against the superintendent and school administrators. He said a final ruling would be issued at a later date.

In February, a state judge ruled in a lawsuit filed by the school district that its punishment does not violate the CROWN Act.

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 barred. That lawsuit remains pending.

George declined to speak after Thursday’s hearing. Booker said that “Darryl’s a little sad” because he’s had difficulty finding a job for the summer.

“He’s just afraid that some of the people that don’t agree with this case will hold it against him as they have been,” Booker said.

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Republished with permission from The Associated Press.




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