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Black teen told to cut his locs by Texas school wins court ruling

Kaden Bradford and his cousin, DeAndre Arnold, 18, made national headlines in January after they said they were not allowed to return to school unless they cut their hair.
A federal judge ruled that Kaden Bradford will be allowed to start the school year with his locs and without being confined to in-school suspension.
A federal judge ruled that Kaden Bradford will be allowed to start the school year with his locs and without being confined to in-school suspension.Courtesy Cindy Bradford
/ Source: NBC News

A federal judge in Texas has blocked a school district from enforcing a dress code policy that prohibited a Black teenager from keeping his locs.

Judge George C. Hanks Jr. of the U.S. District Court in Houston issued a preliminary injunction late Monday that will allow Kaden Bradford, 16, to start the school year with his locs and without being confined to in-school suspension.

The ruling against the Barbers Hill Independent School District High in Mont Belvieu, about 30 miles east of Houston, means that Kaden does not have 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," said Janai Nelson, associate director-counsel of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, in a statement.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund represented Kaden in the request for the preliminary injunction. The firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld is also representing the teen pro bono.

Kaden and his cousin, DeAndre Arnold, 18, who also wears his hair in locs, made national headlines in January after they said they were told they would not be allowed to return to Barbers Hill High School unless they cut their hair. DeAndre is no longer enrolled at the school.

The families sued, alleging that the the district's policy on hair unconstitutionally discriminates on the basis of race and sex and violates students' right to freedom of expression. The preliminary injunction comes in advance of a final ruling on the federal complaint.

Kaden "has shown a substantial likelihood that his rights under the Equal Protection Clause and the First Amendment will be violated if his motion for a preliminary injunction is denied, and he has additionally shown that he will receive either inferior instruction or no instruction if his motion is denied," the court ruling states.

Prior to the court's decision, the school district intended to confine Kaden to indefinite in-school suspension and exclude him from school activities, such as the band program, unless he cut his locs, Nelson said.

A spokeswoman for the school district did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday.

DeAndre was a senior at Barbers Hill High School and said the school would also not allow him to walk at graduation because of the length of his hair. His story drew support from Ellen DeGeneres and Alicia Keys who surprised him with a $20,000 scholarship on "The Ellen Show." DeAndre also attended the Oscars as a guest of Matthew Cherry, the director of "Hair Love" and actress Gabrielle Union and her husband, retired NBA star Dwyane Wade. The couple were producers of the Academy Award-winning short film.

Officials in the majority-white Barbers Hill district, which has nearly 5,400 students, have said that the high school allows dreadlocks, also called locs, but has for decades had a "a community-supported policy" governing the length of male students’ hair.

The district dress code states male students cannot have their hair “gathered or worn in a style that would allow the hair to extend below” the collar, earlobes and eyes when let down.

Kaden's mother, Cindy Bradford, has said her son, like DeAndre, has worn locs for years. Last year, Kaden would wear a headband to keep his locs off his shoulders, his mother said. The school told her that if Kaden kept them pulled back, he would not be in violation of its hair policy, she said.

But the policy changed in December 2019, midway through Kaden's sophomore year, to restrict the length of hair when it was let down.

Bradford told NBC News in January that she believes the hair policy is racist. African Americans made up 3.1 percent of the school district's population in the 2017-18 school year.

Kaden and DeAndre filed grievances on Jan. 27 contending that the school district's dress and grooming policy was discriminatorily construed and enforced against them. On July 20, the school district's Board of Trustees unanimously voted not to change their grooming policy.

Patricia Okonta, a legal fellow at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the judge's latest decision is "a step in the right direction" but there is more work to be done.

"Discrimination against Black students who choose to wear natural hair is highly damaging to their well-being and success," Okonta said in a statement. "As our lawsuit against the school district continues, we will work tirelessly to ensure that Kaden — and all children — no longer have to endure a racist and sexist dress and grooming policy."

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