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A Texas student with dreadlocks has been suspended again for his hair. Does this violate the CROWN Act?

Darryl George, a 18-year-old junior, looks before walking across the street to go into Barbers Hill High School after serving a 5-day in-school suspension for not cutting his hair on Sept. 18.
Michael Wyke
/
AP
Darryl George, a student at Barbers Hill High School near Houston, has been suspended multiple times this year over his hairstyle.

After being suspended for more than a month for refusing to cut his hair, 18-year-old Darryl George returned to class recently at Barbers Hill High School in Mont Belvieu, 30 miles from Houston, only to be suspended again.

Texas is one of several states that passed versions of what’s known as the CROWN Act. CROWN stands for Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair. It’s a law that prohibits race-based hair discrimination. Many people have cited the CROWN Act in Darryl George's case. But does it apply?

Emily Berman, professor of law at the University of Houston Law Center, spoke to Houston Matters on Monday about it. In short, the school found a workaround to not explicitly discriminate against the hairstyle, but rather the length.

The CROWN Act, in both schools and workplaces, puts a stop to requiring historically white, Eurocentric hairstyles as a standard for professionalism. Texas's CROWN Act says that grooming or dress policies may not discriminate against a hair texture or hairstyle that is commonly or historically associated with race. That includes braids, dreadlocks and twists, Berman said. But when it comes to length, Barbers Hill seemed to make that the workaround, she said.

"So it’s interesting because the Texas momentum for this law was set in motion by a similar case in the same school district around two or three years ago, where this school district had a policy that explicitly banned, along with other things, dreadlocks," she said. "A student was suspended and the family brought suit, and ultimately the school district changed its policy, removed the ban on dreadlocks."

But then the district made it a policy that male students' hair cannot extend at any time below the eyebrows, earlobes or the top of a t-shirt. This questions the intent of the policy, Berman said.

"So, if it was intentionally implemented for that purpose (to keep the previous policy in place while complying with the new law), it seems like that would be problematic for the school district," Berman said. "But I think the other question is, is the length of dreadlocks that extend below the top of a T-shirt collar an inherent part of a hairstyle that is historically or culturally associated with race?"

"So if you have dreadlocks that don’t extend below your hair collar," she said, "would we really think of that as dreadlocks, or is that imposing a limit that discriminates on the basis of a particular hairstyle?"

Challenges to hair policies aren't new. Hair policies have also been challenged on the basis of sex discrimination, Berman said. The challenge does not require female students to have their hair a certain length.

"The law says that anything that discriminates on the basis of sex, you have to have an important government interest to justify that," she said. "And so, one question is what is your justification for requiring male hair to be a particular length without requiring female hair to be that same length?"

Berman said the discussion of length tends to be more focused in schools, rather than employment. That does not mean hair discrimination doesn't happen at jobs.

"It tends to be more like ... the requirement of professionalism. And then the question becomes who makes that decision?"

Berman added that these kinds of bans often include ensuring that enforcement cannot be imposed on just one group of people than others.

"The employer cannot enforce more strictly this kind of dress code against Black employees than it does against other employees. So that would be another question to ask in this case, is what do they do when white students have hair that extends below their collars? Are they just as quick to suspend them as they are with someone with dreadlocks?"

Copyright 2023 Houston Public Media News 88.7. To see more, visit Houston Public Media News 88.7.

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