Court

Judge sets trial date in CROWN Act dispute between Black student Darryl George and Barbers Hill ISD

Arguments will be heard Feb. 22 about whether the Houston-area school district is violating a new Texas law that prohibits race-based hair discrimination. Darryl George, an 18-year-old Barbers Hill High School student, has faced disciplinary actions all school year because he wears his hair in dreadlocks and is allegedly violating the district’s hair-length policy for male students.

Darryl George Barbers Hill
AP Photo/Juan A. Lozano
Darryl George, an 18-year-old high school junior, and his mother, Darresha George, stand outside a courthouse in Anahuac, Texas, on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. A judge ordered Wednesday that a trial be held next month to determine whether George can continue being punished by his district for refusing to change a hairstyle he and his family say is protected by a new state law.

A Houston-area judge on Wednesday set a Feb. 22 trial date to hear arguments about whether Barbers Hill ISD is violating a new Texas law that prohibits race-based hair discrimination in public schools.

Darryl George, an 18-year-old Black student at Barbers Hill High School in Mont Belvieu, has faced disciplinary actions all school year because he wears his hair in dreadlocks and has refused to cut them. School district officials have claimed George is violating a hair-length policy they say is not covered by the CROWN Act, which took effect Sept. 1, while the two state legislators who jointly authored the law say it was passed to protect students such as George and hairstyles such as his, which he keeps twisted up in a short length that does not hang below his neck.

"I wrote the CROWN Act, I filed it, to stop exactly the kind of discrimination that we are seeing right here in Barbers Hill ISD," state Rep. Rhetta Bowers, a Democrat from the Dallas area, said during a Wednesday morning news conference outside a Chambers County courthouse. "Barbers Hill ISD is punishing Darryl George for one reason: his choice to wear his hair in a protective style, which harms no one and causes no distraction in the classroom."

Texas is one of 24 states across the U.S. to pass a version of the CROWN Act, an acronym for "Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair." It protects students and employees at state-funded institutions from discrimination based on hairstyles such as Afros, Bantu knots, braids, locs and twists.

Bowers and the law's co-author, state Rep. Ron Reynolds of Missouri City, both said it was spurred by the case of former Barbers Hill High School students De'Andre Arnold and Kaden Bradford, who filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in 2020 after they were told to cut their dreadlocks by school-district officials. That case is pending, but a federal judge found the district's grooming policy at the time to be discriminatory while issuing a temporary injunction.

George's mother, Darresha George, filed another federal civil rights lawsuit in the fall against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, asking them to enforce the new state law on behalf of her son.

Barbers Hill ISD also filed a lawsuit in the fall, in a state district court in Chambers County, asking a judge to clarify the CROWN Act as it pertains to the school's hair-length policy for boys. Wednesday's news conference was held before a status conference in that case, in which Judge Chap B. Cain III scheduled a bench trial for 9 a.m. Feb. 22, court records show.

Allie Booker, a Houston attorney representing the George family, previously filed a motion for declaratory judgment, a temporary restraining order and an injunction, according to court records, which show Cain has not ruled on that request. She said during the Wednesday morning news conference, video of which was published by Houston TV station KPRC, the purpose of the motion was to prevent Barbers Hill ISD from keeping Darryl George out of a regular class setting while the case progresses.

George is serving in-school suspension because of a "failure to comply" with his school district's hair-length policy for male students, Barbers Hill ISD spokesperson David Bloom said earlier this week. George has been in either in-school suspension or a disciplinary alternative education program throughout the school year, which began Aug. 31.

Bowers called it "unconscionable that this young man and his education are still being held captive." George said his ongoing punishment is "angering and frustrating," adding that he's seen other Barbers Hill High School students in apparent violation of the same policy without being punished.

"They have many people out here on drugs, doing God knows what, but then you have a child that actually wants to do right, and y'all still pick with him over hair," Darresha George said of the school district. "Then y'all tell me, ‘Oh, just cut it. Take him out of school.' Why? That's my question. Why? For what? This is him. This is his identity. Why take that from him?"

Barbers Hill ISD superintendent Greg Poole, in a statement released by the school district Thursday, reiterated his claim that its hair-length policy is not covered by the CROWN Act. He also said the district “does not intend to enhance the current disciplinary action” against Darryl George while the court case in Chambers County is pending.

“The law was never intended to allow unlimited student expression,” Poole said.

Bowers and Booker both criticized Poole, the longtime superintendent who in a full-page advertisement in the Houston Chronicle on Jan. 14 explained the school district's position in the matter involving the George family, among other talking points. He wrote that U.S. military academies "realize being an American requires conformity with the positive benefit of unity."

"Who needs to conform is Barbers Hill ISD," Booker said. "This is about Greg Poole. This entire thing is about Greg Poole. It's about Greg Poole and how he feels about someone telling him what to do. He doesn't think he has to follow the law.

"You are the one breaking the law, Greg Poole," Booker added. "You are the one breaking the law, Barbers Hill ISD."