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April 19, 2024

Loc-ing Students Out: Darryl George, the CROWN Act, and the Need to Combat Racial Discrimination in the Classroom

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By Jasmine Payne-Patterson

For some students and workers, hair is a trivial wardrobe decision, while for many Black and Brown people, their hairstyle can be a consequential element of class participation and a job offer. School dress codes and “business appropriate” dress often put high stakes and severe restrictions on how Black and Brown people can express their culture and identity through their hair.

Over the last several years, lawmakers in 24 states have sought to combat this problem by passing the “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair” (CROWN) Act. The CROWN Act is a law that protects against discrimination based on hairstyle and texture in schools, workplaces, and beyond by extending the definition of racial expression to include wearing braids, locs, twists, and other culturally significant hair styles.

Yet the recent court case of Texas high school junior Darryl George reveals that even in states that have adopted versions of the CROWN Act, as Texas has, Black and Brown people can still face educational and career disadvantages for their hairstyles when discriminatory systems—in this case a school dress code—are validated by judicial interpretation that ignores the intent of the law.

Darryl George’s Case

Last year, the CROWN Act (HB 567) passed the Texas legislature and was signed into law by Republican Governor Greg Abbott, taking effect on September 1, 2023. Its passage was the result of a coordinated coalition push spanning back to 2019, when Austin became the first city in the state to pass the CROWN Act following cases of student discrimination and community forums in which combatting hair discrimination emerged as a key priority. 

Darryl George’s experience has made clear the need for the CROWN Act. After transferring to Barbers Hill High School in 2023, George was suspended for the length of his locs. According to school administrators, George’s hair violated the school dress code. The dress code reads, “Male students’ hair will not extend, at any time, below the eyebrows or below the ear lobes. Male students’ hair must not extend below the top of a t-shirt collar or be gathered or worn in a style that would allow the hair to extend below the top of a t-shirt collar, below the eyebrows, or below the ear lobes when let down.” 

According to the school calendar, George only attended classes for two weeks before he was suspended for the rest of the year. He was allegedly denied instructional material and hot food during his in-school suspension.

Soon after George started in-school suspension, his mom sued for discrimination on the basis that his punishment violated the CROWN Act. The trial went to court in February where George’s lawyer, Allie Booker, argued that the grooming policy was unconstitutional because it focused on one gender and violated The CROWN Act because it specifies race as a “protected class” which includes hair texture. 

Despite authors of the Texas CROWN Act testifying on their intent, State District Judge Chap Cain III sided with the school system’s argument that if the authors of the CROWN Act intended to protect people against discrimination based on the length of their hair, they would have specified length in the bill.

George’s case isn’t the first time the Barbers Hill Independent School District (ISD) has faced controversy about racial discrimination.

De’Andre and Kaden Bradford (K.B.) were Black students who previously attended Barber Hills Independent School District. Both students were repeatedly dismissed from class and school activities for refusing to cut their hair, with school administrators stating that “De’Andre’s and K.B.’s natural Black hair is ‘messy’ and contrary to the school district's ‘high standards.’” De’Andre stood by wearing his locs, noting that “where his family is from in Trinidad, men often grow their dreadlocks below their waist. His dreadlocks are a part of his identity and culture.”

In 2020, the boys’ parents sued the school district for racial and gender discrimination based on their hair. The families argued that the school’s policies violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause for sexual discrimination and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 because the school policy only applied to male students. United States District Judge George C. Hanks, Jr., ruled that the policy was discriminatory, thereby establishing a precedent for racial and gender protections in Texas.

In George’s case, Barbers Hill School defendants had the case transferred to a different district where Judge Cain did not follow that precedent.

Dress Code as a Tool for Racial Assimilation

Without proper interpretation of the CROWN Act, students like De’Andre, K.B., and Darryl are subject to school disciplinary actions under a discriminatory dress code. 

Barbers Hill High School describes itself as a place to “empower, support, and inspire our students to achieve academic success and to pursue excelling in all aspects of life.” This tone is contrary to the stated intention behind the dress code: 

“The district’s dress code is established to teach grooming and hygiene, instill discipline, maintain a safe and positive learning environment, prevent disruption, avoid safety hazards, and teach respect for authority.”

Language that emphasizes “authority” and “discipline” as their mission furthers systems of control. With the ability to mandate and define standards of “hygiene” and demand compliance, Barbers Hill created a tool for racial assimilation, requiring that Black students comply with dress codes that force them to assimilate to predominantly white spaces.

Further emphasizing the intent behind the dress code, the school superintendent noted, “The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that affirmative action is a violation of the 14th Amendment, and we believe the same reasoning will eventually be applied to the CROWN Act.” He also took out a half page ad in a local paper reinforcing his opinion of why the school code was justified. In the ad, he compared the school system’s expectations with military academies and said “…being an American requires conformity with the positive benefits of unity, and being a part of something bigger than yourself.” His words echo the focus on “conformity” and assimilation rather than the school’s stated mission of creating a “positive learning environment.”

Barbers Hill ISD is 6% Black, 68% white, and 21% Hispanic or Latino. In other words, there are 11 times as many white students as Black students. While district-level data are not available, state data show that the statewide rate of suspensions and expulsions for Black students is higher than any other singular racial category.

The latest National Center for Education Statistics data for Texas show:  

  • Boys receive out-of-school suspension more than twice as often as girls. 
  • Black students receive out-of-school suspension more than four times as much as white students. Hispanic students are suspended 1.7 times as much as white students. 
  • Black students are expelled almost twice as often as white students. Hispanic students are expelled 1.2 times as often as white students. 

Similarly, Black students faced much higher in-school suspension rates than white students in Texas. According to the Intercultural Development Research Association, Black students in 2018 represented 25% of students receiving in-school suspensions even though they comprised only 13% of the student body. By contrast, white students represented 22% of in-school suspensions while comprising 27% of the student body

Impacts of School Suspension

Suspensions can have detrimental short- and long-term effects on students throughout their education and careers. Suspension is one of the key factors associated with dropping out of school. In fact, the likelihood that any given student will not finish school increases by 10 times if they are suspended. Students who are suspended once are at increased risk of further suspensions, lower grades, ending their matriculation through dropping out of school, and being involved with the juvenile justice system, reinforcing the school-to-prison pipeline. Studies find that, “one of the consequences of suspension, even if objectively warranted, is compromising trust and reinforcing a negative climate of racial and adult control that can undermine identity safety and affirmation, connection to school, and the building of an academic community.” Darryl George reported feeling similar sentiments: “It feels lonely. When you’re only stuck in one room for a whole semester it makes you feel some type of way. You see everyone else walking around talking and laughing and you can’t do that.”

Studies show a stark decline in postsecondary outcomes that compound on each other and worsen with the number of individual suspensions. More suspensions lead to more students dropping out of school, which leads to lower college readiness, college enrollment, and consequently, has long-term impacts on a worker’s earnings. Last year, the median weekly earnings for a person without a high school degree was $721 compared with $905 for high school graduates and $1,499 for workers with a bachelor’s degree.  Establishing a dress code that is likely to infringe on the cultural hair practices of underrepresented students polices Black bodies and positions Black students for educational exclusion that hinders their future career prospects. 

By contrast, schools shifting their policies and practices by adopting culturally conscious implementation and acknowledging implicit biases that arise from historical imbalances of race and power lead to positive outcomes for students. The crux of the culturally conscious implementation is that school administrators intentionally address rules that would hinder the educational experience for Black and Brown students and further historical advantages for white students.  

As school systems perpetuate practices and policy systems built on the structure of segregationist ideologies rampant in Southern states like Texas, and rules of uniformity based on whiteness, their codes and their ability to discipline students becomes a byproduct of that history. While George’s hair length was the listed offense in the court case, his hair length belies the underlying problem; school dress codes need to be racially and culturally respectful, and mindful of bias to create a validating community for Black and Brown students and avoid unjust punishment. 

Impact of Darryl’s Case

George’s case shows that passing the CROWN Act and correct judicial interpretation is needed more than ever despite arguments that a law as specific as the CROWN Act is not necessary due to civil rights protections. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, but the CROWN Act fills in specific attributes that were not included in civil rights laws. It is imperative to specify racial definitions, ensure that every person in the state is protected, and expand protections to avoid improper judicial interpretation.

Authors of the Texas CROWN Act wrote the bill because of students like De’Andre, K.B., and Darryl, hoping to drive change. After the judge’s ruling that Barbers Hill ISD did not violate the CROWN Act, despite the authors’ testimonies of the legislative intent, the judge still ruled that the CROWN Act was not violated. 

Given the recent Barbers Hill ISD case, the authors are now drafting an updated version but will be unable to introduce the bill until the next legislative session begins next year. Rep. Rhetta Bowers said that “Darryl George's case serves as a poignant reminder of the systemic injustices that persist in our society, particularly when it comes to issues of race and personal expression...No one should ever be made to feel inferior or face barriers in education or employment due to their hairstyle.”

The CROWN Act is needed in school systems and beyond to protect Black and Brown students, workers, and the general public across America. George’s story illustrates the plight that students across the country face. Unfortunately, the discrimination does not end in the education system but bleeds into student’s eventual careers. Black workers comprise 12% of the U.S. labor force that students will graduate into; therefore, passing strong CROWN Act laws has the potential to protect them from their class to their careers and beyond.

Some State CROWN Act Laws Do Not Specify Education

While passing the CROWN Act at the state and federal level is critical, it is equally important that the laws protect everyone and are specific. While almost half of states have passed a version of the CROWN Act, not all states add specificity to amend the education code to protect public and private school students, leaving them at risk of the tumultuous school year that George has had to endure. Additionally, some states and localities have exceptions for employer actions based on religion, size, systems of merit, and more. 

The CROWN Act Coalition is working to expand protections to K–12 public and charter schools with states. Only one of the 24 states with CROWN Act laws in place (Colorado) has a specific measure to protect private school students. Proposed bills in Ohio also add specifications for various types of schools Nebraska’s initial CROWN Act law did not include school systems, but in 2023 they enacted new legislation to include schools. 

The map below shows the states that have passed the CROWN Act with specific protections for public and private school systems (see note below for more information).  

To ensure that students are no longer subject to racist dress codes and Black and Brown people are no longer discriminated against based on their hair, it’s imperative that states either pass or expand their CROWN Act laws, and ensure that future anti-discrimination laws specify public and private education systems along with employers, housing entities, and other public accommodations. 

Note: The author understands the Maryland CROWN Act to protect students, however the Maryland code leaves room for ambiguity which could leave students vulnerable. The Maryland CROWN Act amends Title 20 of the State Code as it relates to “State Government,” According to MD Education Code 1-101, the State Department of Education is a department of state government, however the specific section of the code that relates to Education was not amended.

Republished with permission from the Albert Shanker Institute.

Albert Shanker Institute
The Albert Shanker Institute is a nonprofit organization established in 1998 to honor the life and legacy of the late president of the American Federation of Teachers. The organization’s by-laws commit it to four fundamental principles—vibrant democracy, quality public education, a voice for... See More
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