2 teens were suspended over their dreadlocks. Now their families are suing

The school district has said in a statement that it has rules on hair length. The "Constitution allows a school board the right to implement local community expectations," the district said.
DeAndre Arnold speaks about his dreadlocks as his mother, Sandy, listens.
DeAndre Arnold speaks about his dreadlocks as his mother, Sandy, listens.KPRC
/ Source: NBC News

The parents of two black Texas teenagers, who said they were suspended for wearing their hair in locs, are suing the school district and others over what they describe as a "discriminatory hair policy."

The lawsuit was brought by DeAndre Arnold's mother, Sandy Arnold, and Kaden Bradford's mother, Cindy Bradford, on behalf of their sons, against the Barbers Hill Independent School District and its trustees and the superintendent and the deputy superintendent. The principal and the assistant principals at Barbers Hill High School, where the two teens were students until earlier this year, are also named as defendants.

The school district has previously said in a statement that the high school permits dreadlocks, but does not allow "any action that circumvents or violates the provision regarding hair length."

"The U.S. Constitution allows a school board the right to implement local community expectations, and Barbers Hill ISD’s continual academic and extra-curricular successes are a direct result of our communities’ high expectations," the statement said.

The defendants did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday.

The suit, filed Friday in the U.S. District Court in Houston, alleges race and gender discrimination and that the hair policy infringed upon the constitutional rights of DeAndre and his cousin, Kaden, 16, identified as K.B.

DeAndre, 18, was a senior at Barbers Hill High School in Mont Belvieu, in southeast Texas, when he was suspended in January and told he would not be allowed to walk at his graduation ceremony unless he cuts his dreadlocks to meet the school district's dress code, he and his family have said.

His story drew national attention and an outpouring of support, including from Ellen DeGeneres who surprised him with a $20,000 scholarship in January on her show. Actress Gabrielle Union and her husband, retired NBA star Dwyane Wade — who were producers of the Academy Award-winning short film "Hair Love" — also invited him and his mother to the Oscars, which they attended in February.

DeAndre, whose father is from Trinidad, has said he has worn dreadlocks for years like a lot of men in his family, and that he always followed the school's dress code by tying them up. Sandy Arnold has said that after Christmas break, the school district changed its dress code as it refers to hair to stipulate "hair must be clean and well-groomed" and not extend on male students, at any time, below the eyebrows, the ear lobes or the top of a T-shirt collar — including when let down.

The lawsuit says DeAndre was forced to leave the high school in January because the school district's new hair length policy would require he "continually cut his locs."

Sandy Arnold and Cindy Bradford are represented by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and pro bono by the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld. The grievance processes had been ongoing, but were suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the plaintiffs' attorneys.

The lawsuit describes the hairstyle the teens wear as "locs" rather than dreadlocks.

"The term 'dread' in the word 'dreadlocks' comes from the word 'dreadful' used by English slave traders to refer to Africans' hair, which it is surmised had loc'd naturally on its own during the Middle Passage," the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit asserts that black students are and have been disproportionately targeted and penalized for violating "facially race-neutral grooming policies that are designed to, and have the effect of, profiling, singling out, and burdening" black children for wearing their hair in its natural state, including in locs. It notes that the school district is 69 percent white and 3 percent black.

"The length of locs have no bearing on students' capacity to learn, yet these wholly arbitrary grooming policies limit the mobility of Black children in public and private spaces, deny them equal educational opportunities, and strike at the freedom and dignity of Black people," the lawsuit states.

High school sophomore Kaden Bradford was suspended for not cutting his hair.Courtesy Cindy Bradford

Cindy Bradford previously told NBC News that like DeAndre, her son has worn dreadlocks for years and it only became an issue at Barbers Hill High School after Christmas break. She said the school's principal told Kaden in January that he would need to cut his hair, which, according to the lawsuit, prompted him to leave the school. Both students enrolled in Ross S. Sterling High School in another district, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit says the students were faced with the "impossible choice of either suppressing their cultural heritage" and black identity by cutting their natural hair or forfeiting their right to equal educational and extracurricular opportunities.

"For several years and culminating in the 2019-2020 school year, Defendants made it their objective to suppress" DeAndre Arnold and K.B.'s expression of their identity and heritage through their natural hair by continually monitoring and targeting their hair and "promulgating and selectively enforcing arbitrary and discriminatory hair policies," the lawsuit says.

The hair policy crafted and enforced by the school district "has no legitimate purpose, is wholly arbitrary, and impermissibly regulates how students can wear their hair both inside and outside of school," the lawsuit states.

It also alleges DeAndre and K.B. "have suffered, and will continue to suffer, humiliation and emotional distress" as a direct result of the defendants' unlawful monitoring, targeting and constructive expulsion of the students. The two "were effectively expelled when they were forced to leave school because of the hostile and inhospitable environment created by Defendants," the lawsuit says.

They are seeking an unspecified amount of damages, as well as attorney fees and for the school district to rescind the hair length requirement in its dress and grooming code.