On May 22 2020, Everett De’Andre Arnold, Sandy Arnold, and Cindy Bradford (on behalf of her minor son K.B.) filed a lawsuit against the Barbers Hill Independent School District (BHISD), its Board of Trustees, and additional individual defendants challenging its discriminatory hair policy. Mr. Arnold and K.B. were informed by BHISD earlier this year that they must either cut their natural locs or no longer participate in regular classes and school activities, including Mr. Arnold’s graduation ceremony. The plaintiffs are represented by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and pro bono co-counsel Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP (Akin Gump).
On behalf of Mr. Arnold and K.B., LDF and Akin Gump filed a motion on May 26 for a temporary restraining order (TRO), requesting that the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas require BHISD to immediately reinstate Mr. Arnold and K.B. The TRO additionally asks that Mr. Arnold be allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony with his classmates this Friday, May 29, without cutting his hair, and that K.B. be permitted to enroll in the high school’s summer band program without cutting his hair.
Beyond the requests outlined in the TRO, the suit asks that the court find that the construction and selective enforcement of the school district’s hair policy constitute race and gender discrimination and violate the First Amendment, among other state and federal laws.
“BHISD intentionally developed and selectively enforced a biased hair length policy to target and punish Mr. Arnold and K.B. because of their natural hair. Mr. Arnold and K.B.’s locs are an expression of their Black identity and cultural heritage — and BHISD’s efforts to penalize these students by subjecting them to in-school suspension and banning them from school activities, including graduation, are indefensible,” said Janai Nelson, LDF’s Associate Director-Counsel.
“Our lawsuit challenges BHISD’s hair policy on the basis of race and gender discrimination and First Amendment protections, and asks that the court immediately order the school district to reinstate Mr. Arnold and K.B. — and rescind the discriminatory hair length requirement in its dress and grooming code to ensure that students are no longer harmed by this policy. No student’s learning should be disrupted, nor should they be punished, because of a discriminatory policy regulating their hair.”
Mr. Arnold, a graduating senior, and K.B., a sophomore, were high school students in BHISD in Mont Belvieu, Texas, until earlier this year. Both Mr. Arnold and K.B. have been growing their hair into locs since they were students at Barbers Hill Middle School North. The two students always sought to comply with BHISD’s hair policy by pulling their locs back with hair ties to ensure their hair did not extend beyond a certain length. However, midway through the 2019-20 school year, BHISD changed its dress and grooming code to include a hair length requirement that targeted Mr. Arnold and K.B. because of their race and gender. The change made compliance impossible unless Mr. Arnold and K.B. cut their locs. This policy was strictly enforced against the two students after Sandy Arnold spoke about its discriminatory impact at a BHISD Board of Trustees meeting.
“Black students are often disproportionately penalized for violating facially race-neutral policies that profile, single out, and burden them for wearing their hair in its natural state. The length of a student’s locs has no bearing on their capacity to learn, but hair and grooming policies like BHISD’s limit Black children’s mobility, deny them equal educational opportunities, and maintain the pernicious myth of white supremacy,” said Patricia Okonta, LDF’s Skadden Fellow.
“Black students are faced with an unfair choice: either don their natural hair in natural formations and protective styles and face the consequences, or suppress their identities to conform to predominant Eurocentric hair. Students should never have to confront this dilemma, and we are hopeful our lawsuit will mean that BHISD students will be relieved of this burden.”
The lawsuit represents a cumulative step in the fight to seek justice for Mr. Arnold and K.B. The two students originally filed grievances on Jan. 27 contending that BHISD’s hair policy was discriminatorily created and enforced against them. The grievance processes had been ongoing, but were suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Children of color are subject to myriad sociocultural barriers that negatively impact their ability to thrive. Therefore, it is critical that they receive an undisrupted education and extracurricular opportunities on an equal basis, as student involvement in these activities improves educational outcomes, enhances psychological development, and creates a heightened sense of belonging,” said Mahogane Reed, LDF’s John Payton Appellate and Supreme Court Advocacy Fellow. “BHISD’s biased decision to deprive Mr. Arnold and K.B. of their right to access these educational opportunities is fundamentally unjust and cannot stand.”
UPDATE: August 2020
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.”
UPDATE: March 2021
On March 9 2021, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and pro bono co-counsel Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP (Akin Gump) filed an amended complaint adding new facts to support claims of racial and gender discrimination and violations of the First Amendment in connection with Barbers Hill Independent School District (BHISD)’s hair and grooming policy. The amended complaint asserts that, not only did BHISD selectively enforce its discriminatory hair policy to target Black students with uncut locs, but, when the discrimination made the local news, BHISD ramped up enforcement of the hair policy against other students in an apparent attempt to conceal the selective enforcement.
LDF also issued a letter to BHISD demanding the district take appropriate steps to improve school climate after it failed – for months – to remove “Black Lives Don’t Matter” graffiti from the high school and removed posters of Vice President Kamala Harris and former First Lady Michelle Obama that students had posted in celebration of Black History Month on the grounds that the posters were divisive.
“The amended complaint reveals new details of the unrelenting discrimination our clients have faced because of their culturally significant hair, as well as school officials’ apparent efforts to disguise their transgressions,” said Janai Nelson, LDF’s Associate Director-Counsel. “Recent events at Barbers Hill High School compound our concerns about the welfare of BHISD students. We hope that the district takes swift and decisive action to improve the school climate.”
The amended complaint shows that BHISD issued more hair policy citations in the nine school days that followed initial local news coverage of its discriminatory conduct than it had during the entirety of each of the prior three school years.
“Hair policies like BHISD’s deprive students with culturally significant hair of equal educational opportunities,” said LDF Senior Counsel Michaele N. Turnage Young. “Moreover, the fallout can negatively affect other students, parents, and the entire school community.”
After BHISD’s discrimination against LDF’s clients came to light in January 2020, members of the Texas legislature announced that they were working to introduce the “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair” Act (the CROWN Act), which would outlaw hair discrimination in public schools and workplaces in Texas, during the 2021 legislative session. Multiple Texas legislators have since filed versions of the bill, all of which are currently in committee.
“Fortunately, the Texas legislature has introduced the CROWN Act, a critical piece of legislation that would prevent other students from experiencing the discrimination that our clients have suffered, including being forced to change schools, miss educational opportunities and once-in-a-lifetime events, like graduation,” said LDF John Payton Appellate and Supreme Court Advocacy Fellow Mahogane Reed. “It is our hope that Texas will follow the lead of Connecticut – which recently became the eighth state to enact the CROWN Act – and Delaware – which is poised to pass the CROWN Act today – in ending this injustice.”
To learn more about Black hair discrimination and bias, please visit LDF’s hair discrimination web page.
* Terminology note: LDF uses the term “loc(s)” or “lock(s)” to refer to what some refer to as “dreadlock(s).” The latter term derives from a description of Black hair locs as “dreadful” and “was used by English slave traders to refer to Africans’ hair, which had probably loc’d naturally on its own during the Middle Passage.” See Brown White, S., Releasing the Pursuit of Bouncin’ and Behavin’ Hair: Natural Hair as an Afrocentric Feminist Aesthetic for Beauty, 1 Int’l J. Media & Cultural Pol. 295, 965 n.3 (2005).