Federal judge holds fate of lawsuit filed by Black Texas student punished over hairstyle

A lawsuit filed by a Black high school student alleging racial and gender discrimination over his extended punishment for refusing to change his hairstyle was discussed in a federal court in Galveston, Texas. However, the judge did not make an immediate ruling following the presentation of legal arguments.

Darryl George, an 18-year-old student, has been absent from his usual classes at a high school in the Houston area since August 31. The Barbers Hill district claims that the length of his hair goes against their dress code.

The district claims that George’s lengthy hair, which he styles in a tied and twisted manner on top of his head, violates their policy as it would exceed the length specified by falling below his shirt collar, eyebrows, or earlobes when let loose. Furthermore, the district has pointed out that other students with locs are able to adhere to the length requirements.

Darryl George and his mother, Darresha George, brought a federal civil rights lawsuit last year. They filed the lawsuit 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 claims that the defendants have either participated in or failed to prevent racial and gender discrimination against George due to his continuous punishment regarding his hairstyle.

“I am thrilled that we have reached this point. It has been a challenging journey, but we have overcome every obstacle along the way. This is just another milestone that we need to surpass. We are prepared to fight and give it our all,” stated Darresha George with a sense of relief and determination following the court hearing on Thursday.

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The lawsuit claims that George’s punishment is in violation of the CROWN Act, a recent state law that prohibits discrimination based on race when it comes to hairstyles. The CROWN Act, which became effective in September, prevents employers and schools from penalizing individuals due to their hair texture or protective hairstyles such as Afros, braids, locs, twists, or Bantu knots.

George, a junior at Barbers Hill High School in Mont Belvieu, has been facing alleged violations of his First Amendment rights to free speech and expression. Throughout the school year, he has been subjected to in-school suspension or attendance at an off-site disciplinary program.

During a court hearing on Thursday, Allie Booker, the attorney representing George, argued before U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Brown that the policy implemented by the district is discriminatory and lacks racial neutrality. Booker further claimed that while the school district grants religious exemptions for hair length, it fails to provide the necessary race-based protections as mandated by the CROWN Act.

Booker pointed out that the school district lacked clear policies regarding the allowance of long hair for girls and the prohibition of the same for boys.

During the conversation, Brown inquired about any existing case law that supports the notion of hair length being protected as expressive conduct under the First Amendment. In response, Booker mentioned that she hadn’t come across any such cases. However, she highlighted the significance of George’s lawsuit, emphasizing that it is a groundbreaking case that sets a precedent. Booker further asserted that the protection of self-expression through hairstyles does not necessarily have to be exclusively linked to religious beliefs in order to be safeguarded by the law.

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After the court hearing, Booker emphasized that the focus should not be on the length of hair but rather on promoting acceptance for everyone equally.

According to Jonathan Brush, the attorney representing the Barbers Hill school district, he emphasized that the district’s policy is not based on race and that George’s lawsuit has failed to demonstrate a significant pattern of racial discrimination by the district.

According to Brush, having separate hair length restrictions for boys and girls does not amount to discrimination. Brush asserts that the district’s hair length policy would be acceptable in both professional and military settings.

According to Brush, George’s First Amendment rights were not violated because he did not demonstrate that his hairstyle conveyed a message to the world.

Darresha George emphasized that her son’s hairstyle holds both cultural and religious significance for him. Historians have noted that braids and other hairstyles bear great cultural importance within the African American community.

Texas Governor Brown expressed his inclination to dismiss Abbott and Paxton from the lawsuit, along with certain claims made against the superintendent and school administrators. A final ruling on this matter is expected to be issued in due course.

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

In May 2020, two other students filed a federal lawsuit challenging Barbers Hill’s hair policy. Although both students initially withdrew from the high school, one of them returned after a federal judge granted a temporary injunction. The judge acknowledged that there was a high probability of the student’s rights to free speech and freedom from racial discrimination being violated if he was prohibited from attending. This lawsuit is still ongoing.

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George chose not to speak following Thursday’s hearing. Booker expressed that Darryl is feeling a bit down as he has been struggling to find a summer job.

“He’s simply concerned that those who disagree with this case will hold it against him, as they have been,” Booker explained.

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