Despite impassioned pleas from attorneys, a Texas school district is refusing to change its grooming policy that led to the suspension of two Black students earlier this year.
The students — cousins Kaden Bradford and De'Andre Arnold — wear their hair in long dreadlocks. But Barbers Hill Independent School District, just east of Houston, forbids male students from keeping their hair at a length "below the top of a t-shirt collar, below the eyebrows, or below the ear lobes," according to the district's Student Handbook.
This week the school board voted unanimously to keep the policy in place.
"Especially in this moment, coming so soon after George Floyd's death, and the largest protests in our nation's history, so many different institutions right now are examining systemic racism and implicit bias, and looking within themselves," said Brian Klosterboer, an attorney with the ACLU of Texas, who represents Bradford. "This was an opportunity for the school board to revise and change its policies so that it could be inclusive and affirming of all students, regardless of sex and race."
Barbers Hill ISD did not respond to a request for comment. At the board meeting Monday, an attorney for the school district said the policy had nothing to do with race, but was rather about maintaining a standard of excellence in Barbers Hill schools. That standard entails keeping one's hair short.
"They want the standards without having to meet the standards," attorney Hans Graff said, as reported by Houston Public Media. "They want to be treated differently. They're saying, 'We want the academic excellence, we want the excellence of Barbers Hill. But we don't want to comply with what it takes to achieve that.' "
But that argument itself was "racist and incredibly problematic," Klosterboer told NPR. The school district was essentially saying that "the only way to be excellent is to fit that white majority stereotype," he said. "[The students'] heritage, too, is excellent, just as the majority culture in the district itself."
Only 3 percent of students in the school district are Black, compared to more than 12 percent statewide.
"Anyone who's met Kaden and De'Andre, these students, knows how incredibly excellent they are," Klosterboer said. "They have now sacrificed being away from their friends — being isolated at school — to stand up for their constitutional rights, and to stand up for their heritage, their family and their culture and for what they believe. And that is excellent."
Arnold had complied with the dress code throughout high school by keeping his hair up. But in 2019 the school board made the code more stringent, his attorneys said, requiring that students' hair meet the district's length requirement even if not worn let down. That would have required Arnold to cut his dreadlocks — in the process, destroying them, attorney Christina Beeler told the board.
"West Indian cultural traditions specifically prohibit cutting or trimming locks and locks will unravel if they are cut," said Beeler, who represents Arnold as a staff attorney at the University of Houston Law Center's Juvenile and Children's Advocacy Project.
School officials told Arnold, a senior who had been in the school district since pre-kindergarten, that he wouldn't be able to go to the senior prom or walk in his high school graduation until he cut his dreadlocks. So his mother, Sandy Arnold, withdrew her son from Barbers Hill High School and transferred him to another district for the rest of his senior year.
Bradford, a rising junior, has also transferred to a district where he can keep his hair the way it is, his lawyer said.
After the suspensions came to light, some Texas lawmakers said they would introduce a bill in the next legislative session banning discrimination based on hair styles. California, Maryland and Virginia have passed similar laws, Houston Public Media reported.
Some school officials have long been hostile toward dreadlocks. In 2018 a white referee forced a Black high school wrestler in New Jersey to have his dreadlocks cut off before a match; after national outrage, the referee was suspended. In 2013 an elementary student in Oklahoma was sent home because of her dreadlocks; after media attention, her school revised its dress code to remove all references to hair.
The boys' parents sued the district in May, asking the court to overturn the district's grooming policy. In a hearing, U.S. District Judge George Hanks denied their motion for a temporary restraining order to allow Arnold to attend his graduation, but permitted the lawsuit to proceed.
In a hearing scheduled for Wednesday, Bradford's parents will ask Hanks to allow Bradford to return to Barbers Hill High School while the lawsuit moves forward.
"Black students are and have been disproportionately targeted and penalized for violating facially race-neutral grooming policies that are designed to, and have the effect of, profiling, singling out, and burdening Black children for wearing their hair in its natural state," the complaint states.
"These grooming policies ultimately present Black students with an unfair choice: either wear their hair in natural formations and be deprived of adequate educational resources or conform their hair to predominant Eurocentric hair aesthetics to receive the same educational opportunities as their white peers," the complaint says. The students "were faced with the impossible choice of either suppressing their cultural heritage and Black identity by cutting their natural hair or forfeiting their right to equal educational and extracurricular opportunities."
Klosterboer says the lawsuit could cost the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. "We'd been hoping that the district would change its policies now," he said, "without waiting for a federal court to tell them, and force them, to do what's right."