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Darryl George, an 18-year-old junior, looks on before walking into Barbers Hill High School after serving an in-school suspension for not cutting his hair, Sept. 18, 2023, in Mont Belvieu, Texas. The Texas high school Black student who has been disciplined and kept away from his classroom for months for refusing to change his hairstyle is not likely to be back with his regular classmates anytime soon. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke, File)
JUAN A. LOZANO and CHEYANNE MUMPHREY Associated Press
Published: 16 December 2023

HOUSTON (AP) — A Texas high school Black student who has been disciplined and kept away from his classroom for months for refusing to change his hairstyle is not likely to be back with his regular classmates anytime soon.

Efforts by Darryl George’s attorney to ask a judge to pause his punishment by his Houston-area school district over his locs as well as a civil rights lawsuit he and his family filed in September remain on hold in federal court.

George, 18, returned to in-school suspension at his campus, Barbers Hill High School in Mont Belvieu, Texas, last week and for now he will remain there. Before that, he had spent a month at an off-site disciplinary program.

Here are some things to know regarding why George’s discipline over his hairstyle has continued for months, why his school district believes its actions have been justified and how various legal issues are complicating George’s situation.

Why is Darryl George unable to return to class?

George was first pulled from his classroom in August after school officials said his locs fell below his eyebrows and ear lobes and violated the district’s dress code. His family argues his hairstyle does not break any rules.

Allie Booker, the attorney for George’s family, said after a hearing Wednesday on the federal lawsuit, that people have been trying to tell George he should give up and cut his hair.

“But he’s not going to break. He’s strong ... He’s like, ‘I’m not going to cut my hair, but I just can’t believe I’m going through this,’” Booker said. But Booker added she fears George could ultimately be expelled.

What is the CROWN act?

George’s family has argued his punishment is discriminatory and violates the CROWN Act, which became law in Texas in September and is intended to prohibit race-based hair discrimination and bars employers and schools from penalizing people because of hair texture or protective hairstyles including Afros, braids, dreadlocks, twists or Bantu knots.

In court filings, attorneys for the Barbers Hill School District have said students don’t have a protected right under federal law to wear their hair at the length and style of their choice while attending school.

During Wednesday’s court hearing, Jonathan Brush, one of the school district’s attorneys, said Barbers Hill has for decades had a hair restriction policy for male students related to length.

“Locs have always been permitted,” Brush said.

Jaleesa Reed, an assistant professor at Cornell University whose research focuses on the intersections of beauty culture, identity and place informed by human geography, said repeated attempts to control Black hair expression through such policies shows the need for the CROWN Act at the federal level.

“Rather than punishing students, providing opportunities to learn more about cultural hairstyles could enrich the learning environment and foster acceptance of differences,” Reed said.

William Sherman, an attorney in Washington, D.C., and the legal strategist for the CROWN Act, said that George is being denied an education.

"Why? Because his hairstyle does not fit the Eurocentric ideal of neat and clean,” he said.

Other legal issues complicating Darryl George’s case

George’s family has filed a formal complaint with the Texas Education Agency and a federal civil rights lawsuit against Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton along with the school district, alleging they failed to enforce the CROWN Act. The lawsuit is before U.S. District Judge Charles Eskridge.

The school district had filed a separate lawsuit in state district court asking a judge to clarify whether its dress code restrictions limiting student hair length for boys violate the CROWN Act. But George’s attorney filed a motion to move that lawsuit to federal court. That separate case is before another Houston federal judge.

During Wednesday’s court hearing, Eskridge discussed a motion to consolidate the two lawsuits, as well as motions to dismiss the lawsuit against Abbott and Paxton and the school district and to move the case to federal court in nearby Galveston.

Booker said she is hoping to argue a motion asking for a temporary injunction that would halt the school district’s punishment of George until his case is resolved. But she said she can’t do that until Eskridge rules on these other motions first and that might not happen until early next year.

“It’s very frustrating. It’s just overwhelming because it’s like you just want to get there ... knowing that you’re going to win. Case precedent has been set. We will win the injunction,” Booker said.

Barbers Hill’s policy on student hair was previously challenged in a May 2020 federal lawsuit filed by two other students. Both students withdrew from the high school but one returned after a federal judge granted a temporary injunction, saying the student showed “a substantial likelihood” that his rights to free speech and to be free from race discrimination would be violated if not allowed to return to campus. That lawsuit remains pending.

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