How a Texas school ruling on hair spreads mental harm, even in New Jersey

February 28, 2024

High school student Darryl George now joins the growing list of students who have been academically penalized for their hair.

He joins fellow Texas high school student DeAndre Arnold, who was suspended and refused entrance to graduation because of his hair; West Virginia high school basketball player Matthew Moore, who was benched because of his locs; and Nyirah Newton, who was 10 years old when she was sent home and suspended for months because her hairstyle violated the school’s dress code.

The Barbers Hill Independent School District suspended George for months because of the length of his locs, and last week, a Texas judge ruled that the state’s CROWN Act doesn’t make it unlawful for school dress codes to limit a student’s hair length.

George’s reaction to the ruling, captured in his confusion, disappointment and tears, summed up why these experiences aren’t only traumatic, but may lead to a state of hopelessness and depression known as racial trauma or raced-based traumatic stress. Racial trauma refers to the mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination as well as racism.

Because hair is a subjective and deeply personal element, being socially penalized and isolated because of one’s hair might lay a foundation of fear and anxiety. Who can forget the many challenges young people faced when isolated during COVID because of the quarantine? Many students and educators are still dealing with the emotional toll and mental health effects as well as the reduction in academic advancement during that time.

Isolation, combined with the intersectional layer of hair, race and culture, evokes an afterthought of a time when “Black Lives Mattered.”

Research shows that some individuals who experience prolonged incidents of racial discrimination can exhibit symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder including depression, anger, recurring thoughts of the event and physical reactions such as headaches, chest pains and insomnia.

Similarly, young people face unique challenges because of their developmental stage. They haven’t yet learned the resilience and coping mechanisms needed to curb these emotional setbacks. During high school, teens are still forming their identity, building their social capital, and developing their academic foundations of who they want to be and what they will stand for. Isolation during prolonged school suspension disrupts this and delays memorable sports activities, proms and graduations, which can have a long-term effect on their growing developmental and emotional well-being.

The length of George’s locs was the issue with the Barbers Hill school dress code violation, which states, “boy’s hair will not extend below the eyebrows, below the ear lobes, or below the top of a t-shirt collar.”

By these standards, those who grow their hair based on their religion such as Orthodox Judaism, Rastafarianism and Sikhism would be in violation, too.

Currently, the Texas CROWN Act doesn’t include hair length as a form of discrimination. As a result, George will have to continue serving in-school suspension, being socially separated from his peers while his lawyers prepare to fight the ruling.

Mosaic, February 28,2024

Patricia O’Brien-Richardson, PhD., is an associate professor of teaching, and chief diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging officer at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. Her research explores social, cultural, and structural factors that influence the health of women and girls of African descent, such as hair.

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