A Texas couple has filed a federal lawsuit against their son’s school district after school officials colored on the boy’s head with a permanent marker.
On April 17, Ju’elz Trice, 13, arrived at Berry Miller Junior High School in Pearland, Texas. He was eating breakfast in the cafeteria when the assistant principal, Tony Barcelona, approached him and said his haircut violated the dress code, the suit alleges.
The day before, the seventh grader had gotten a “fade” haircut with an M-shaped line design, a common hairstyle for African American boys.
According to the lawsuit, Barcelona brought Ju’elz to the office and told him he had two choices: either in-school suspension, which could last all day, or allow school officials to color his scalp with a black Sharpie marker.
Ju’elz had never been in trouble at school, and he was afraid that a suspension on his record could get him kicked off his track team, so he reluctantly chose the marker option.
Three school officials participated in coloring the boy’s scalp, according to the lawsuit: assistant principal Barcelona, school discipline clerk Helen Day and teacher Jeanette Peterson. According to Ju’elz, the adults laughed as they colored his head, leaving him humiliated.
His parents say they were not called at any point, and only found out about the incident after school.
“Once he got off the bus, Ju'elz, he got in the car and then the first thing that he stated to me was, ‘Mom, look at my hair,’” his mom, Angela Washington, 33, told TODAY. “That's how we found out about the situation, once he got in the car. So, when it first happened I was extremely upset because I didn't know anything about it, and just the fact that it happened at all was very disturbing.”
Ju’elz’s father, Dante Trice, 35, was also furious. He said his son’s haircut was not offensive or distracting.
“That design in Ju'elz head wasn't a gang sign. It wasn't nothing provocative,” he told TODAY. “It's just a heritage, the culture.”
He added that he sees a racial element to the story, and pointed out that the marker only made the design in his son’s hair even more noticeable.
“I look at it like this: You take a jet-black permanent marker to my son's head. But if it was a white kid, would you take a white marker?” he said. “What color would you color a white kid's head? I don't get it. So it's like it's a joke? And the marker made the design stand out even more. It wasn't like it helped it. It made it stand out more. Because in all reality, his hair is not jet black. His skin is not jet black.”
The family’s lawyer, Randall Kallinen, also believes that coloring Ju’elz’s head with black marker had racist overtones.
“This concept of African Americans having jet-black skin is actually something from Jim Crow era, designed mainly to try to distance African Americans from white people and to disguise their humanity,” he told TODAY. “So why they would ever think that any African American skin is jet black, or that Ju'elz's was, it's just a racist idea.”
Kallinen also questioned why the school officials did not involve Ju’elz’s parents at any point.
“They're not supposed to just mete out punishment like that. They're supposed to call up the parents and have a meeting and so forth. They just don't threaten people with suspension and start coloring their skin like that,” he said. “They have both Angela's and Dante's phone numbers.”
The incident sparked outrage at the time and amid the public outcry, assistant principal Barcelona was placed on administrative leave. Washington says Barcelona did call and apologize to her and her son before going on leave. However, when she tried subsequently to contact the district to discuss the matter further, she received no response.
Later, Barcelona returned to the school and was promoted to head principal. This, along with the school’s lack of communication about the incident, felt like a “smack in the face,” Trice said.
“They don't care. That's how we feel,” he told TODAY. “On top of not reaching back out to us or anything, but then it's like it's a bigger smack in the face, like, ‘Yeah, we done it. But we still going to promote him, just to let you know that we don't care about what really happened. So, that's your son, so what?’"
When asked for comment, the Pearland Independent School District replied to TODAY with a statement from Tanya Dawson, a lawyer for the district.
“Other than media reports, Pearland ISD has yet to receive notification of the lawsuit. Upon receipt, it will be reviewed by our legal counsel,” the statement read. “No further comment will be provided at this time.”
The district has revised its dress code for the upcoming school year. The previous guidelines had stated that “extreme hairstyles such as carvings, mohawks, spikes, etc., are not allowed.”
That language has since been removed from the district dress code. But for Ju’elz’s parents, this lawsuit isn’t really about the dress code, but about how the school dealt with their son’s alleged dress code “violation.”
“I just feel like the whole way the school district handled it is, it's not right at all,” Trice said. “I feel like they didn't do anything right in this whole situation.”
He and Washington hope this lawsuit will prompt the district to offer more cultural-sensitivity training to teachers and school officials. Washington says she feels optimistic that the lawsuit will bring about some change in the district, but Trice remains doubtful.
“For them to just blatantly not respond to us, or just basically be totally ignorant to the way we feel about our kid, or about the way my kid feels, I don't know how much change it's going to make, to be honest with you,” he said.
After the incident, the Sharpie markings on Ju’elz’s head took several days of scrubbing to wash off. Now entering the eighth grade, Ju’elz still seems to be dealing with the lasting emotional effects of the experience.
“He's always been a pretty quiet kid, but he's gotten more quiet,” Trice said. “He's a real off-to-himself kind of kid. He really wants all this to go away. It's really a hassle for him. He's really embarrassed, he's uncomfortable.”
He added that it’s hard for Ju’elz to return to school and interact with the same adults who were involved in the incident last year.
“My son is 13 years old now and he has to go every single day, embarrassed and uncomfortable, while this principal gets a promotion and gets more pay,” Trice said. “(The principal’s) life goes on, his life actually gets better. And my son’s life gets worse.”