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A Texas school district bans boys from wearing long hair. Now, some students are suing.

An image from a KPRC broadcast on Aug. 23 shows student Daniel Hoosier walking away after telling Magnolia Independent School District board members he opposes the school system's ban on boys having long hair. Hoosier had recently “caved” by cutting his hair to comply with the district's rule. (KPRC)
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School officials in Texas forced a 9-year-old boy to serve an in-school suspension for a month, deprived him of recess and normal lunch breaks, and banished him from campus to an alternative school — all to pressure the fourth-grader into getting a haircut, a new lawsuit says.

Still, the boy refused to obey what he believes is an unjust school policy that bans boys from having long hair.

The boy, identified as A.C. in court documents, is one of seven students suing a Texas school district for what they call a discriminatory policy that requires boys to wear short hair. The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas filed the federal lawsuit Thursday on the students’ behalf against the Magnolia Independent School District, which serves some 13,000 students about 40 miles northwest of Houston.

The students, aged 7 to 17, allege that the district’s policy prohibiting boys from wearing long hair is based on gender stereotypes that violate the Constitution. They say administrators apply it unevenly, allowing some boys to wear long hair that violates the district’s grooming standards while punishing others. Those suing the district said that punishment has caused them “immense and irreparable harm.”

Parent Stanley Burkhead asked board members to reconsider a ban on boys wearing long hair in the Magnolia Independent School District during an Aug. 23 meeting. (Video: Magnolia Independent School District)

“We have warned the district repeatedly that its gender-based hair policy violates the Constitution, but the district continues to derail students’ lives and deny their right to a public education free from discrimination,” Brian Klosterboer, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Texas, said in a statement provided to The Washington Post.

The rule requires that male students’ hair must be “no longer than the bottom of a dress shirt collar, bottom of the ear, and out of the eyes,” the district’s handbook states.

Denise Meyers, a spokeswoman for the district, said officials are reviewing the lawsuit’s claims. She said the district has heard from “a small group of parents” raising questions about the dress and grooming standards and was considering their complaints. She also defended the policy and said it was similar to policies in place for about half of Texas public school districts.

“Like hundreds of public school districts in Texas and across the country, MISD’s rules for dress and grooming distinguish between male and female dress and grooming standards,” Meyers said. “This system of differentiated dress and grooming standards have been affirmed by courts and does not inhibit equal access to educational opportunities under Title IX.”

She added that Magnolia considers requests for exemptions or accommodations based on factors such as religious practice and gender identity.

In August, the district had defended the approach by saying it “reflects the values of our community at large.”

The lawsuit is an escalation in a months-long battle between the students, their parents and school leaders. Several of those students and parents denounced the policy at a school board meeting in late August, just as some of the students were serving the first days of their in-school suspensions. On the day of the meeting, three civil rights groups, including the ACLU, urged the district to end what they called a discriminatory grooming policy, which the ACLU noted in Thursday’s lawsuit can hurt nonbinary students who don’t identify as male, even if that’s what it says on their birth certificate.

The court case comes days after Texas lawmakers passed legislation barring transgender students from playing on sports teams that align with their gender identity. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott lauded the bill as a way to “protect the integrity of Texas high school sports.” A White House spokesman slammed the bill, telling the Dallas Morning News it is “nothing more than bullying disguised as legislation and undermine[s] our nation’s core values.”

Daniel Hoosier was one of the students who denounced Magnolia’s grooming policy at the board meeting. Hoosier, who was 17 at the time, initially resisted cutting his shoulder-length hair. But by the time he spoke to board members, he had “caved” after serving one day of an in-school suspension.

“I feel like I lost a piece of myself when I was forced to cut it,” he told the Houston Chronicle.

Hoosier elaborated when he spoke to a local TV station: “It feels dehumanizing to have school, a government entity, force me to cut my hair and meet their expectations of appearances.”

One of the plaintiffs in the suit, a 15-year-old high school student, said his hair is “one of the only aspects of his life that he has full control over,” especially during the coronavirus pandemic, during which he lost both his mother and grandmother, according to the lawsuit. Another plaintiff, an 11-year-old fifth-grader, is nonbinary, sometimes expressing as a boy and other times as a girl, but has been subject to the policy because they were assigned male at birth, the lawsuit says. In recent years, the student, identified as T.M., discovered that wearing long hair has become “a critical component” in expressing their gender identity.

Danielle Miller, T.M.'s mother, said in a statement provided to The Post that the district has “lost sight of what’s most important and keeps inflicting harm on our kids.”

“No student should be forced to conform to gender stereotypes or have their education upended because of that student’s gender,” Miller said. “We will not be ignored nor go away quietly while our children are disciplined simply because of their gender.”

The seven Magnolia students accuse district administrators of “vigorously” punishing them. Sanctions have included days, or even weeks, of in-school suspension, according to the lawsuit. For some of the students, officials escalated the punishment by sending them to an alternative school “typically reserved for students who have violated state or federal law or committed serious violations of school policies,” it adds. The district did not provide them transportation to get there, the suit alleges.

In the case of A.C., the 9-year-old boy, being sent to the alternative school led him to temporarily drop out since the district didn’t provide transportation that he had previously received. So, for about two weeks, he has been home-schooled, even as his sister continues to attend classes in the district, the lawsuit states.

But the fourth-grader wants to keep his long hair, which he corrals into a ponytail. It helps him connect to the Latino men in his family who have also grown out their hair, including his father and uncle. “Wearing long hair adds to A.C.’s self-confidence and is an important part of his family heritage,” the lawsuit says.

Laura Meckler contributed to this report.