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Black Student’s Suspension Over Hairstyle Didn’t Violate Law, Texas Judge Rules

A Texas judge ruled on Thursday that a school district’s dress code, which it used to suspend a Black student last year for refusing to change the way he wears his hair, did not violate a state law meant to prohibit race-based discrimination against people based on their hairstyle.

The student, Darryl George, 18, has locs, or long ropelike strands of hair, that he pins on his head in a barrel roll, a protective style that his mother said reflected Black culture. Since the start of his junior year last August, he has faced a series of disciplinary actions at Barbers Hill High School in Mont Belvieu, about 30 miles east of Houston, after refusing to cut his hair. He was separated from his classmates, given disciplinary notices, placed in in-school suspension and sent to an off-campus program.

The hearing on Thursday, in the 253rd Judicial District Court in Anahuac, was in response to a lawsuit filed in September by the Barbers Hill Independent School District. The filing argued that Mr. George was “in violation of the District’s dress and grooming code” because he wears his hair “in braids and twists” at a length that extends “below the top of a T-shirt collar, below the eyebrows, and/or below the earlobes when let down.”

The district asked State District Judge Chap B. Cain III to clarify whether the dress code violated a state law called the Texas CROWN Act, as the defendants, Mr. George and his mother, Darresha George, assert. The act, which took effect on Sept. 1, says a school district policy “may not discriminate against a hair texture or protective hairstyle commonly or historically associated with race.” It does not specifically mention hair length.

Allie Booker, a lawyer for the Georges, said she would appeal the ruling.

The trial was the latest development in a case that has prompted scrutiny of education policies and race in the United States. At least 24 states have adopted laws that make it illegal to discriminate against students or workers because of their hairstyle.

The case involving Mr. George began soon after officials at the school objected to his locs and told Ms. George that the length of her son’s hair, even though it was pinned, violated the district’s dress code. The district subjected him to punishments, including suspension, after he refused to cut it.

Ms. George and her son filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in September against Texas’ governor, Greg Abbott, who signed the law, and the state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, saying they allowed the school to violate the act.

Their lawsuit is seeking a temporary order to stop Darryl’s suspension while the case moves through the federal court system, and accuses Mr. Abbott and Mr. Paxton of “purposely or recklessly” causing Ms. George and Darryl emotional distress by not intervening.

Supporters of the family, including legislators and activists, also said the measures violated the CROWN Act.

The family’s lawsuit said Mr. George wears locs as an “expression of cultural pride” and claims that his protections under the federal Civil Rights Act are being violated because the dress code policy disproportionately affects Black male students.

In October, Mr. George was transferred to an off-campus disciplinary program. In December, he was allowed to return to his high school but then was given another in-school suspension, this time for 13 days.

In January, the superintendent of the school district, Greg Poole, defended the policy in an advertisement published in The Houston Chronicle, saying that districts with dress codes are safer and have higher academic performance, and that “being an American requires conformity.”

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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