A Houston-area school district has unanimously voted to preserve a hair policy that has been widely criticized as racist and discriminatory, especially after it prevented a Black high school senior from walking in his own graduation earlier this year.
The Barbers Hill Independent School District, located east of Houston, bans boys enrolled in its schools from wearing their hair long. In January, Barbers Hill High School student De’Andre Arnold made national headlines after he was told he couldn’t attend senior prom or walk in his high school graduation unless he cut off his dreadlocks.
After Arnold’s story went viral, he appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show and was invited to attend this year’s Academy Awards ceremony by the creators of the Oscar-winning animated short, Hair Love.
The rule also impacted his cousin, Kaden Bradford, who was suspended for wearing his hair in dreadlocks.
As NPR reports, despite a wave of states overturning these policies because of the ways they disproportionately punish Black students and workers, Barbers Hill ISD school board voted to keep the policy in place.
Naturally, an attorney for Barbers Hill ISD said the policy had nothing to do with race but was primarily concerned with maintaining “excellence.”
“They want the standards without having to meet the standards,” attorney Hans Graff said, as reported by Houston Public Media. “They want to be treated differently. They’re saying, ‘We want the academic excellence, we want the excellence of Barbers Hill. But we don’t want to comply with what it takes to achieve that.’ “
But that argument itself was “racist and incredibly problematic,” [ACLU Texas Attorney Brian] Klosterboer told NPR. The school district was essentially saying that “the only way to be excellent is to fit that white majority stereotype,” he said. “[The students’] heritage, too, is excellent, just as the majority culture in the district itself.”
According to the district’s student handbook, male students are in violation of school police if they keep their hair “below the top of a t-shirt collar, below the eyebrows, or below the ear lobes.” Arnold, who attended Barbers Hill schools since kindergarten, had complied with the policy by wearing his dreadlocks up. But Arnold’s family attorneys say school officials made the policy more restrictive last year, requiring students to meet the guidelines even when their hair wasn’t worn down.
Arnold and Bradford’s families sued the school district earlier this year, faulting the policy for “profiling, singling out, and burdening Black children for wearing their hair in its natural state.”
“Anyone who’s met Kaden and De’Andre, these students, knows how incredibly excellent they are,” Klosterboer told NPR. “They have now sacrificed being away from their friends—being isolated at school—to stand up for their constitutional rights, and to stand up for their heritage, their family and their culture and for what they believe. And that is excellent.”