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Suspended for their long hair, male students challenge Texas schools’ dress code

The school district claims its grooming code is meant to teach hygiene and respect for authority. The suspended students say it is based on impermissible gender stereotypes.

HOUSTON (CN) — Seven male students filed a gender-discrimination lawsuit against a Texas school district Thursday, claiming it has derailed their educations by suspending them for having long hair while taking no action against football players who are also violating its grooming code.

The lawsuit comes two months after three civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, sent a letter to Magnolia Independent School District demanding it stop enforcing its grooming policy that bars boys from wearing their hair longer than the bottom of their shirt collars.

The district, which has 17 schools and more than 13,000 students, refused to budge. It claims the code, which it adopted in 2007, is meant to teach grooming and hygiene, instill discipline and teach respect for authority.

According to the lawsuit, which was filed by the ACLU of Texas in Houston’s federal court, some of the plaintiffs had attended Magnolia ISD schools for years and kept their hair long without issue until the district started cracking down on them at the start of this school year in August.

“Magnolia ISD’s grooming policy is based on impermissible gender stereotypes — namely, that short hair is more ‘masculine,’ more professional and more conducive to traditionally male-dominated occupations and activities,” the complaint states.

The plaintiffs range in age from 7 to 17 and are identified only by their initials in the lawsuit.

One of them, T.M., is a nonbinary 11-year-old fifth grader who goes by gender-neutral pronouns and wears scrunchies in their hair.

“If T.M. is forced to wear short hair based on gender stereotypes associated with their gender assigned at birth, T.M. will lose a vital part of who they are and sacrifice an essential element of their gender expression,” the lawsuit states.

Yet Magnolia ISD placed T.M. on in-school suspension early this school year for their long hair.

The district relented and agreed to pause its enforcement of the policy for 60 days, but solely for T.M. and only after their mother spoke to the Houston Chronicle, which published an article on Aug. 23 about their ordeal.

Magnolia ISD has not granted a reprieve to any of the other six plaintiffs, however, and is even interfering with their efforts to enroll in other school districts, according to the complaint.

Lead plaintiff A.C., a 9-year-old, says in the lawsuit his family recently moved to Magnolia and he was excited to attend in-person classes in the fourth grade at Ellisor Elementary School after two years of virtual classes due to the pandemic.

A.C. has never had a haircut, only a trim.

“He is Latino and many men in his family wear long hair, including his dad and uncle. Wearing long hair adds to A.C.’s self-confidence and is an important part of his family heritage,” the lawsuit states.

But on the first day of classes, school officials told his parents he had to cut his hair, or he would be sent to in-school suspension. His mother explained the family tradition to them to no avail.

For the next five weeks, A.C. was placed in a classroom for suspended kids and was not permitted to attend art, music, physical education, recess or lunch with his classmates.

“His grades plummeted and he found it impossible to make friends at a new school. The only time that he interacted with other students was on the school bus, where another student made fun of him by calling him ‘ISS kid,’” according to the complaint.

With A.C.’s parents still refusing to cut his hair, Magnolia ISD moved him to an alternative campus for students with disciplinary problems then refused to provide him bus transportation there, forcing him to drop out.

His family is now homeschooling him. But the ACLU of Texas says he is eager to return to Ellisor Elementary School, where his long-haired sister also attends classes.

Rather than being suspended, three of the other plaintiffs caved to Magnolia ISD’s policies and cut their hair.

Two others, like A.C., refused to cut their hair and were forced to drop out of school. These students claim that because Magnolia ISD is still enforcing expulsion orders against them they face difficulty enrolling in other school districts.

The plaintiffs claim Magnolia ISD’s policy is undermined by the fact it selectively enforces it, letting some boys on the high school football team keep their long hair.  

Asserting violations of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause and Title IX, the seven students seek an injunction ordering the school district to stop enforcing its gender-based hair restrictions.

“At a time when students have already been through so much due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is outrageous that Magnolia ISD administrators are pushing students out of school because of their gender and hair,” Brian Klosterboer, ACLU of Texas staff attorney and lead counsel, said in a statement.

Magnolia ISD did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday morning.

This is at least the third federal lawsuit filed by male Texas students since 2019 challenging school districts’ grooming policies.

Two Black cousins sued Barbers Hill Independent School District in May 2020, claiming they were forced to transfer to other school districts after the district in Dayton, 30 miles east of Houston, disciplined them for refusing to cut their dreadlocks.

A federal judge sided with the cousins in August 2020 and blocked Barbers Hill ISD from enforcing the policy.

In August 2019, the parents of a Black student sued Pearland Independent School District after white administrators of the Houston-area district colored in a stylized line in his fade style haircut with a black Sharpie. They claimed his cut was violating the school dress code.

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