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Texas lawmakers plan to amend CROWN Act after court ruling in favor of Barbers Hill ISD

A banner featuring Darryl George, an 18-year-old Black student at Barbers Hill High School who is being punished over his hair, is held up Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in Chambers County, Texas.
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
A banner featuring Darryl George, an 18-year-old Black student at Barbers Hill High School who is being punished over his hair, is held up Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in Chambers County, Texas.

Dreadlocks cannot be created without long hair, and the Texas lawmakers who wrote the CROWN Act assumed that would be universally understood.

The new law, which received bipartisan support and took effect last September, aims to protect students and employees at state-funded institutions from discrimination based on hairstyles such as Afros, Bantu knots, braids, locs and twists. It was spurred by the case of former Barbers Hill High School students De'Andre Arnold and Kaden Bradford, who in 2020 were told to cut their dreadlocks by school-district officials and subsequently had a federal civil rights lawsuit filed on their behalf.

So state Rep. Ron Reynolds, a Missouri City Democrat who co-authored the CROWN Act and serves as the chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, said he was "very disturbed and dejected and very disappointed" by a Thursday ruling in a state district court in Chambers County. Judge Chap B. Cain III determined that Barbers Hill ISD – the same Houston-area district that suspended Arnold and Bradford for refusing to lop off their locs – was not violating the new law by continually punishing 18-year-old Black student Darryl George over his hair.

The school district has claimed that George, who keeps his dreadlocks twisted up in a short length that does not hang below his ears, eyebrows or neck, has been confined to in-school suspension or an alternative disciplinary campus for violating a local policy that prohibits long hair among male students. Cain agreed with the argument, that hair length is not covered by the CROWN Act, which Reynolds called an "absurdity."

"If you wear dreadlocks, if you have any cultural competence, you know you have to have a certain length in order to have the dreadlocks or the braids," said Reynolds, who testified Thursday about the legislative intent of the CROWN Act. "We didn't think we had to specify any particular length because it goes with the style. The school district, they simply found a red herring, a loophole, because they didn't want to comply with the law."

Although George's family attorney plans to appeal Thursday's ruling, it served as the first test of the new law and will prompt its sponsors to try to amend it during the next state legislative session in 2025, according to Reynolds. In the meantime, George will be forced to remain in in-school suspension "until he trims his hair," Barbers Hill ISD spokesperson David Bloom wrote in an email Friday.

That prospect also drew the ire of state Rep. Rhetta Andrews Bowers, a Dallas-area Democrat who was the lead author of the CROWN Act. She said in a statement after Thursday's ruling that it "undermines the very essence" of the law.

Texas is one of 24 states to pass a version of the CROWN Act, an acronym for "Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair."

A sign depicting Barbers Hill ISD superintendent Greg Poole is displayed in Chambers County, Texas, on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024.
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
A sign depicting Barbers Hill ISD superintendent Greg Poole is displayed in Chambers County, Texas, on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024.

"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," Bowers said. "No one should ever be made to feel inferior or face barriers in education or employment due to their hairstyle. The CROWN Act was a crucial step forward in our ongoing fight against racial discrimination, yet this ruling demonstrates that our work is far from over."

CROWN Act's past, present and future

Texas' CROWN Act first was proposed during the biennial legislative session in 2021, when there was a hearing that included testimony from Arnold, but the bill did not make it out of the Texas House's state affairs committee. Bowers, Reynolds and others continued garnering support for the measure ahead of the 2023 session, when it passed and was part of a law-signing ceremony including Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican.

Reynolds said he did not envision a need to revisit the law until receiving a "gut punch" in the form of Thursday's ruling. He and Bowers already have discussed amending the CROWN Act to include hair length, among other changes, Reynolds said.

"You have to anticipate that other loopholes could be there, because lo and behold, I don't have any doubt in my mind that if they can find another way, another nuance, another red herring, then they'll try to do that," Reynolds said of Barbers Hill ISD. "Because they are hellbent on not having their students wear these protective hairstyles. That is very clear and evident, so not only will we address length, but we'll also dissect this for any other potential loopholes so we'll protect these students from future challenges from the Barbers Hills of the world."

That could be easier said than done, though, which Reynolds acknowledged. Even though the CROWN Act had bipartisan support during a largely contentious legislative session in 2023, he said the makeup of the Texas House and Senate could be much different in 2025.

Early voting has started for the March 5 primary elections in conservative-leaning Texas, with Abbott supporting candidates who favor his controversial plan to use public funding for private school tuition and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton campaigning against fellow Republicans who voted to impeach him last year on charges of bribery and corruption, among other allegations.

"I want to believe in good faith that my colleagues will do the right thing and allow us to amend this and get it back to the governor to address unintended consequences that we didn't anticipate," Reynolds said. "I'd like to think we can do that, but I can't say with certainty as I talk to you today, because I don't know who's going to be in the house, who's going to be the speaker. There's so many unknowns."

The civil rights lawsuit filed in 2020 on behalf of former Barbers Hill students Arnold and Bradford, by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, remains ongoing. So does a federal lawsuit filed last fall by George's mother, Darresha George, who is asking Abbott and Paxton to enforce the CROWN Act on behalf of her son.

Barbers Hill ISD superintendent Greg Poole compared the CROWN Act to affirmative action in a Friday statement made through the school district while also saying, "Falsely claiming racism is worse than racism and undermines efforts to address actions that violate constitutionally protected rights."

"The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that affirmative action is a violation of the (Fourteenth) Amendment and we believe the same reasoning will eventually be applied to the CROWN Act," Poole said.

Bowers said in her statement that Texas lawmakers "cannot allow discriminatory practices to go unchecked." Along those lines, Reynolds called Thursday's court ruling against Darryl George a "temporary victory" for Barbers Hill ISD.

"This is not over yet," Reynolds said.