On August 18 2020, following a three-day virtual preliminary injunction hearing the week of July 19, a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas granted a request made by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and pro bono co-counsel Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP (Akin Gump) to enjoin enforcement of Barbers Hill Independent School District (BHISD)’s discriminatory dress and grooming policy. LDF and co-counsel made the request on behalf of K.B, a Black student at Barbers Hill High School in Mont Belvieu, Texas.
Prior to the court’s decision, BHISD intended to confine K.B. to indefinite in-school suspension and exclude him from school activities until he cuts his locs. Now, K.B. can return to class, extracurricular activities, and all the normal educational opportunities offered to Barbers Hill High School students while the lawsuit related to BHISD’s policy continues.
“Today’s momentous decision enjoining enforcement of BHISD’s discriminatory dress and grooming policy makes a huge difference for our client, who may now return to class and extracurricular activities after being unfairly deprived of an equal education for many months,” said Janai Nelson, LDF’s Associate Director-Counsel. “The court’s granting of our request means that K.B. no longer has to endure an unjust and educationally-damaging in-school suspension simply for having uncut locs, which are an immutable part of his Black identity and cultural heritage.”
“We are encouraged by the court’s decision to grant our request to enjoin enforcement of BHISD’s discriminatory dress and grooming policy,” said LDF Senior Counsel Michaele Turnage Young. “It is heartening that the court has recognized K.B.’s prospects for success on our race discrimination, gender discrimination, and freedom of expression claims in this lawsuit, and ensured that K.B. does not have to continue enduring discrimination that disrupts his learning and reinforces a damaging message of intolerance in the educational environment.”
K.B., along with his cousin, De’Andre Arnold, was informed by BHISD earlier this year that he either had to either cut his locs or no longer participate in regular classes and school activities, including the school’s band program. K.B. and Arnold filed grievances on Jan. 27 contending that BHISD’s dress and grooming policy was discriminatorily construed and enforced against them. On July 20, BHISD’s Board of Trustees unanimously voted not to change their grooming policy at final hearings on these grievances.
“It is especially critical that we do not close the schoolhouse door to children of color, who already endure countless hurdles in their quest to get an education because their physical appearance does not meet some arbitrary standard of acceptability,” said Mahogane Reed, LDF’s John Payton Appellate and Supreme Court Advocacy Fellow. “We are pleased with the court’s decision, as it means that K.B. is no longer being deprived of an equal education simply for existing as his full self.”
In May 2020, LDF and Akin Gump filed a lawsuit against the BHISD, its Board of Trustees, and several individual defendants on behalf of Cindy Bradford (on behalf of her minor son, K.B.), Arnold, and Arnold’s mother, Sandy, seeking relief from BHISD’s dress and grooming policy on the grounds that the policy’s construction and enforcement is unconstitutional race and sex discrimination and violates students’ right to freedom of expression. Citing “evidence in the record of selective enforcement, procedural irregularities, and increasingly restrictive amendments [to the dress and grooming policy], coupled with the lack of a persuasive justification for the hair-length policy,” the Court held that K.B. had established a substantial likelihood of success on his gender discrimination, race discrimination, and First Amendment claims.
“Today’s granting of our request to enjoin enforcement of BHISD’s discriminatory policy is an important step in the right direction, though our work is not done,” said Patricia Okonta, LDF’s Skadden Fellow. “Discrimination against Black students who choose to wear natural hair is highly damaging to their well-being and success. As our lawsuit against the school district continues, we will work tirelessly to ensure that K.B. – and all children – no longer have to endure a racist and sexist dress and grooming policy.”
To learn more about Black hair discrimination and bias, please visit LDF’s hair discrimination web page.