HOUSTON (CN) — A Texas school board Monday refused to change its grooming policy despite the discrimination claims of a Black former student who says the school effectively expelled him midway through his senior year when he refused to cut his dreadlocks.
De’Andre Arnold, whose father is from Trinidad, started growing his dreadlocks in seventh grade as an expression of his Black and West Indian heritage.
“West Indian cultural traditions specifically prohibit cutting or trimming locks and locks will unravel if they are cut,” Christina Beeler, a staff attorney at the University of Houston Law Center’s Juvenile and Children’s Advocacy Project, told the Barbers Hill Independent School District’s board Monday.
The school district is in Mont Belvieu, a small city 30 miles east of Houston that is home to one of the country’s largest natural gas processing complexes.
Of its 6,574 residents, 89% are white and 8.5% are Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Beeler said when Arnold was in eighth grade a district staff member told him, “His hair did not reflect the district’s image of excellence and it might be a problem in high school.”
In high school, Beeler said, an assistant principal and a teacher told Arnold his hair “looked messy,” so he started wearing his hair up with a thin headband, only to have the district change its dress code to bar male students from wearing hair accessories.
Beeler said in Arnold’s senior year the harassment from staff escalated and he was regularly removed from class due to administrators’ concerns about his hair.
Then in December 2019, the board changed the grooming policy so male students’ hair could not “extend below the top of a t-shirt collar, below the eyebrows, or below the ear lobes when let down.”
With his parents’ support, Arnold refused to cut his dreadlocks. He transferred to a high school in a neighboring school district and graduated in May.
Arnold’s plight brought national attention.
He appeared on comedian Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show in January and she gave him a $20,000 scholarship after he revealed he plans to become a veterinarian.
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter Bernice King, California Governor Gavin Newsom and New Jersey U.S. Senator Cory Booker, both Democrats, blasted the district for refusing to change its policy.
CROWN is short for Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair. The movement was launched by the CROWN Coalition, co-founded by the beauty product company Dove and civil rights groups the National Urban League and Color of Change.
In February, Arnold attended the Oscars at the invitation of the creators of the short animated film “Hair Love,” which is about a Black man styling his young daughter’s hair for the first time. It won the Oscar for best animated short film.
Arguing via Zoom that the district’s treatment of Arnold is unconstitutional race discrimination, Beeler told the school board Monday his legal team had submitted over 200 pages of photos from Barbers Hill High School yearbooks, going back to 1990, of “white male students who were in violation of the district’s hair policy at prom, at sporting events, in class and in their official yearbook photos.”
The board also heard a grievance Monday from Arnold’s cousin, Kaden Bradford, a rising junior who attended Barbers Hill ISD schools from first grade until he transferred to another school district in February after he was suspended over his dreadlocks and refused to cut them.
The board, in two 5–0 votes, rejected grievances the ACLU of Texas and the Juvenile and Children’s Advocacy Project of Texas filed on behalf of Arnold and Bradford after a 75-minute hearing Monday.
Beeler said the policy also violates the First Amendment.
“The justifications for the policy appear to be based on preconceived and ill-informed notions of what is professional, or clean, or excellent,” Beeler said.
But the district’s counsel Hans Graff, of the firm Sara Leon & Associates, said Arnold was not penalized for having black hair, or for his hairstyle, and Beeler was purposely avoiding talking about hair length because that’s what the case is all about.
“His hair is too long,” Graff said.
He also said the yearbook photos opposing counsel submitted of white male students with long hair could not be relied upon to prove racial discrimination.
“They’re making the assumption without any basis in fact that they weren’t disciplined and we don’t know that,” Graff said, adding it is unknown if the photos were taken in the summer or during Christmas break.
Graff said disciplinary data from the last school year disproves Arnold’s and Bradford’s racism claims.
“Black students were less likely to be disciplined for hair violations than students of any other race,” Graff said. “In the last year, black students made up 3.94% of the population of Barbers Hill ISD. The rate they were disciplined for hair violations was 1.79%.”
Beeler pressed her point that Arnold’s hair is culturally significant to him, part of his heritage and identity.
“I’m not sure how much clearer we can make this: We are addressing the length restriction. If you cut locks they will unravel. So that he cannot maintain his locks,” she said.
She urged the board to change the policy and avoid dragging out the dispute for months or years, which she said could cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees, to the detriment of students, parents and taxpayers.
Arnold, Bradford, and their mothers brought a civil rights lawsuit against the district, its board of trustees and several administrators over the grooming policy in a federal court in Houston in May.
Despite the school board’s refusal to budge Monday, the legal battle could be resolved by legislation.Members of the Texas Legislature’s Black Caucus plan to follow California, New Jersey and New York’s lead and introduce legislation in the 2021 session that would protect Black people in schools and workplaces from being discriminated against over their hair.