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A federal lawsuit filed in the Southern District of Texas last week accuses administrators at Berry Miller Junior High School of using a Sharpie marker to color in a black student’s stylized fade haircut. The 13-year-old student, named as “J.T.” in his parents’ lawsuit against the school, faced this bizarre punishment for allegedly violating the school’s dress code.
According to the complaint, J.T. arrived at school on April 17 with a new haircut, a fade with a stylized letter “M” shaved into one side. Then-Assistant Principal Tony Barcelona approached J.T. while he was having breakfast in the school’s cafeteria, telling him he was “out of dress code” and needed to go to the office.
Barcelona and J.T. were joined by the school’s discipline clerk, Helen Day, who informed J.T. he violated the school’s code regarding hairstyles. Administrators told J.T. he had two choices: Miss his classes by sitting in In-School Suspension or let administrators color in the design on his scalp.
Administrators did not inform him that he could appeal the suspension or contact his parents for advice. Fearing a suspension would impact his ability to compete on the school’s track team, J.T. agreed to let someone take a marker to his head. Someone produced a black Sharpie marker, and the group of adult administrators began coloring the 7th grader’s scalp.
In recent years, more and more people have challenged school dress codes for their racist and sexist connotations. J.T’s legal complaint highlights not only that fade haircuts are common amongst black youth, but also that the administrators who drew on his head were all white.
Moreover, the act of “filling in” J.T.’s hair didn’t even cover the allegedly rule-breaking design. Instead, the black marker made it stand out – making it hard to believe the goal was actually to bring J.T.’s look in line with dress code. The incident is reminiscent of the public haircut given to a high school wrestler last year – another student forced to submit to a humiliating punishment or face immediate consequences.
At the time, the school district’s dress code included a rule against “extreme hairstyles” such as carvings or mohawks; however, the school district removed that rule in May 2019. Whether this change came as a result of social media backlash following J.T.’s punishment is unclear, however a statement by the school district called the change an attempt to “identify and remove any perceived racial, cultural and religious insensitivities.”
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