A student filed a lawsuit against his school district, alleging that its policy regarding hair-length was racially discriminatory. The student is Black and wears his hair in "locs" (sometimes referred to as "dreadlocks"). When the student began his freshman year, the hair-length policy for male students stated that dreadlocks were permitted if they did not extend below the eyebrows, below the ear lobes or below the top of a shirt collar. To comply with this requirement, the student wore a thin headband and tied his locs up and back. His hair received extensive scrutiny, and he was removed from class at least once a week to ensure that his hair complied with policy. This continued into his sophomore year.
Midway through the student's sophomore year, the district changed its policy related to hair-length for male students. Under the new policy, male students' hair could "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." This change meant that the student could no longer comply with the dress code by tying his locs up. He declined to cut them and was placed in ISS. He eventually transferred to a district where he could grow his locs without suffering further punishment.
When he filed his lawsuit, the student requested a preliminary injunction that would allow him to return to the district without being punished under the hair-length policy while the lawsuit was pending. He stated that he had attended the district since first grade, was an A/B student, missed playing trombone in the marching band and wanted to return to his home district.
In evaluating that request, the court analyzed whether or not the student was likely to prevail on his claim that the hair policy was racially discriminatory and concluded that he was. In doing so, the court noted that it was highly unusual to revise a hair policy mid-year and that the superintendent had testified that the reason it had been revised was to "give clarity that circumventing and manipulating the dress code policy is not permitted." He further testified regarding the student that "he's a great kid. I know that. But my impression he's circumventing the process to get by the dress code." The superintendent also stated that the aim of the dress code was to make students look "clean cut and presentable" but conceded that the student looked clean cut and very presentable with his locs up. The student also presented evidence to show that during his sophomore year, African American students were three times more likely than white classmates to lose at least one day of instruction to hair-related ISS placements. In other words, Black students were more likely than white students to be punished due to the hair-length policy.
Based on this and other evidence, the court concluded that the student was likely to prevail on his argument that the hair policy was racially discriminatory. The student also showed that he would suffer irreparable injury if he was not permitted to return to his home district while the lawsuit was pending. Finally, the court noted that there was not evidence to show that the district would be harmed by allowing the student to return without being punished for wearing his hair in locs. Accordingly, the student's request for a preliminary injunction was granted.
This lawsuit is expected to continue and further proceedings may impact the ultimate outcome of this matter.