Education News

Barbers Hill ISD violating CROWN Act while punishing Black student with dreadlocks, lawmaker says

Darryl George, an 18-year-old Black student at Barbers Hill High School, has faced disciplinary action all school year because he wears dreadlocks and has refused to cut them. The school district claims its issue is with George’s hair length and not his hairstyle, the latter of which is protected by a new Texas law.

Barbers Hill Hair CROWN Act
AP Photo/Michael Wyke
Darryl George, left, a high school junior, and his mother Darresha George, right, talk with reporters before walking across the street to go into Barbers Hill High School after Darryl served a 5-day in-school suspension for not cutting his hair Monday, Sept. 18, 2023, in Mont Belvieu.

A Houston-area school district continues to claim it is not violating the CROWN Act, a new Texas law that prevents discrimination based on hairstyles. In the case of Darryl George, an 18-year-old Black student at Barbers Hill High School who has faced disciplinary actions all school year because he wears his hair in dreadlocks and has refused to cut them, Barbers Hill ISD says the issue is his hair length and not the style.

One of the lawmakers who authored the legislation, meanwhile, says the small-town school district about 30 miles east of Houston continues to knowingly skirt the law and operate in "bad faith" because the intent of the law was to protect students such as George.

State Rep. Ron Reynolds, a Houston-area Democrat who co-wrote the CROWN Act and serves as the chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, said the school district in Mount Belvieu is trying to claim its hair-length policy for boys is a loophole in the new law, which protects students and employees at state-funded institutions from discrimination based on hairstyles such as Afros, Bantu knots, braids, dreadlocks and twists. CROWN is an acronym for "Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair," and Texas' version of the act is one of 24 to be enacted across the United States.

Barbers Hill ISD superintendent Greg Poole defended the district's position and expounded on it in a full-page advertisement in the Jan. 14 edition of the Houston Chronicle, suggesting that criticism of its treatment of George is political in nature.

Houston Chronicle Barbers Hill ISD ad
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Barbers Hill ISD took out a full-page ad in Houston Chronicle on January 14, 2024, to defend their decision to punish a Black student for refusing to cut his dreadlocks.

"This student is advocating ... for his own right to express himself the way he chooses to do by wearing his hair in a lock, in a dreadlock, and that is perfectly acceptable and normal and lawful in Texas for a high school student to do that," Reynolds said Monday. "And Barbers Hill is effectively violating the law and discriminating against this student based on his protected hairstyle, and that is flat-out wrong.

"We're going to continue to fight about it, we're going to continue to speak up about it, we're going to continue to make noise about it," he added. "So Barbers Hill can place as many ads as they want to try to do damage control, but we are going to speak truth to power."

Barbers Hill ISD did not grant a request Monday to interview Poole or another district administrator. District spokesperson David Bloom wrote in an email that George is currently serving in-school suspension for "failure to comply" with Barbers Hill ISD's hair-length policy for male students, which states that hair must not extend below the eyebrows, ear lobes or top of a T-shirt collar even if it is gathered atop the head, which has been the case with George.

Since the school year started last August, George has been held out of regular classes at Barbers Hill ISD and been placed in either in-school suspension or at a disciplinary alternative education program, according to Reynolds. Poole noted in the advertisement that the district has "African-American students with hair longer than our dress permits," adding that those students "applied, qualified for, and were granted religious exceptions."

RELATED: A Houston-area student with dreadlocks has been suspended again for his hair. Does this violate the CROWN Act?

"... I am constrained by student privacy rights to comment directly about an individual student, but it is a matter of public record that the child moved this year from a neighboring school district that allows longer hair on males," Poole also wrote, "and I can point out that all students and their parents receive and sign off on the dress code at the beginning of each year."

Barbers Hill ISD filed a lawsuit in the fall asking a state district court judge in Chambers County, where it is located, to clarify the CROWN Act as it relates to its dress and grooming policy. The district is awaiting a hearing on the matter, according to Bloom.

Also pending is a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by George's mother, Darresha George, which asks Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to enforce the CROWN Act on behalf of her son. She also filed a complaint against Barbers Hill ISD with the Texas Education Agency (TEA), alleging the school district has harassed and mistreated her son over his hair. An investigation into those allegations remains open, according to a spokesperson for the TEA.

Allie Booker, a Houston-based attorney representing the George family, called the hair-length policy a “pretextual excuse” in a statement to NPR. She also claimed Barbers Hill ISD unevenly enforces the policy based on race, saying, “White boys can wear their hair over their ears and collar as long as they don’t braid it like a Negro.”

“We are going to seek justice for Black males in BHISD who have long been and are still being discriminated against,” Booker added. “… It’s about race and nappy course hair being long, not straight white folks’ hair being long.”

A civil rights lawsuit against Barbers Hill ISD was previously filed in federal court in 2020, on behalf of former Barbers Hill High School students De'Andre Arnold Kaden Bradford, after they were told to cut their dreadlocks. That case is pending as well, but a federal judge found the school district's policy to be discriminatory while issuing an injunction.

The case of Arnold and Bradford spurred the creation of the CROWN Act, according to Reynolds, who said he's "very upset and angry and very disappointed with Barbers Hill" for causing the same type of "mental stress and trauma" for Darryl George. Reynolds also said he does not think the new law needs to be amended to explicitly address hair length, but added that he and bill co-author Rhetta Bowers, a fellow Democrat from the Dallas area, are willing to do so if it would prevent Barbers Hill ISD from "hiding behind loopholes and discriminating."

"The message they're sending to these other students is, ‘You either conform to our European standards of what a student should look like and dress like and act like, or else you're going to face the same consequences as Darryl and you won't be allowed to attend school here,'" Reynolds said. "That is a chilling effect on these students. I remember talking to De'Andre Arnold, and it was the same message to him. Now it's déjà vu all over again."

Reynolds said he's proud of George for holding his ground and not cutting his hair. He even likened the young student to Rosa Parks, the Black woman who resisted bus segregation in Alabama in 1955 and provided inspiration for the Civil Rights movement.

As for Barbers Hill ISD, Reynolds criticized the district for continuing to punish George while it awaits the CROWN Act clarity it has requested in court.

"Instead of taking the position that they're going to allow this student to be in school while the court decides, they've dug in their heels and said, ‘Well, we believe we're correct,' even though the lawmakers are telling you what the legislative intent was," Reynolds said. "Now go figure. The authors of the bill are saying, ‘No, no, no, no, we passed this law to cover this.' They're saying, ‘No, no, no, no, the bill doesn't specifically state that.' That's why we know it's in bad faith."

NPR’s Jonathan Franklin contributed to this report.