A 13-year-old boy has been swept into a federal civil rights lawsuit against a Texas school board, after three members of staff—including the now-principal—allegedly colored in the carving of his non-regulation haircut on his scalp with a permanent marker.
When Juelz Trice arrived at Berry Miller Junior High School on April 17 sporting a new hairstyle featuring a carved “M,” he was told it was in violation of the school dress code, which at the time prohibited extreme hairstyles, including “carvings.”
According to a now-deleted school district statement in south Houston he was given three options: face disciplinary consequences, notify his mother, or have the “M” filled in with marker pen.
The parents, who say they only found out when he returned home with his head colored in, allege he was given only two options: to face his first-ever disciplinary action or to have it colored in.
The school district apologized to the parents at the time, and said that it should never have happened, but took no further permanent actions.
Now the parents have filed a federal lawsuit against the Pearland Independent School District (ISD) as their son returns to school, where one of the three staff members who allegedly helped color in his scalp, Tony Barcelona, has now been promoted to head principal.
“He’s going to remember this for the rest of his life, and it’s his eighth-grade year,” said Angela Washington, the boy’s mother, during a press conference live-streamed by KPRC. “I don’t want him having to deal with this. His middle school year is basically ruined.”
The lawsuit alleges that the act constituted assault, used excessive force, and violated the fifth and 14th amendments, and that the dress code was unconstitutional.
But the suit’s fundamental cause of action is that of racism: that the school violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.”
The suit described the haircut as a “common African American ‘fade’ haircut with innocuous line design,” and notes the fact that the three members of staff who colored in his head are white.
The parent’s civil rights lawyer, Randall Kallinen, flanked by “community activists,” framed the lawsuit in what he said was the context of “systemic racism” against black pupils in the state of Texas as he outlined the case to reporters.
In a Facebook post, he said that the lawsuit was filed against a “racist school and officials.”
The lawsuit claimed that using a jet black marker on the boy’s lighter tone skin—which ended up highlighting the pattern—conformed to the “negative racial stereotype” of jet black skin from the Jim Crow era.
The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages, asks for the previous uniform code and its reference to “carvings” to be declared unconstitutional, and for the court to order that school district employees receive cultural training about haircuts.
The suit alleges, “They laughed as they took many minutes to color 13-year-old J.T.’s scalp which took many days of scrubbing to come off.”
According to Kallinen, the family only pressed ahead with the lawsuit after the school had refused to engage with them or to give “cultural training” to their staff.
The three individuals named in the lawsuit have not so far given a response to any media requests to comment.
When the incident first came to light, there was no apparent suggestion of racism by the boy’s parents, who appeared more angry that their son, who they say has never been in trouble, had been humiliated and that the school had not informed them.
The incident came to light when his mother, Angela Washington, posted a series of pictures on Facebook on April 19, showing his hair colored in with the marker, and two days later with the marker still visible.
“Juelz got a haircut on Tuesday with a design,” she wrote in the post. “On Wednesday at school the Assistant Principal at Berry Miller Jr. High in Pearland ISD told him he was out of dress code with his designs and decided to color my baby design with a PERMANENT MARKER!”
“His only options was to go to ISS or get his head colored,” she wrote. “They did not call to inform me at all.”
Her Facebook post was picked up by Pearland ISD trustee Mike Floyd, who called the incident “unbelievably unacceptable” and called for the administrator to be fired but made no reference to racism.
“From what we’re seeing emerging right now in the public discourse, it’s just absolutely inappropriate what occurred,” Floyd told the Houston Chronicle. “The real problem is there’s a clear and obvious display of a lack of judgment.”
Pearland ISD said in a now-deleted statement at the time that it was “extremely disappointed” by the situation and had apologized to the family.
The ISD said the school administrator had “mishandled disciplinary action by giving the student options including notifying his mother, disciplinary consequences, or filling in the shape of the hair carving with a marker.”
“This latter practice is not condoned by the district and does not align with appropriate measures for dress code violations.”
The school board has updated its uniform policy to remove a sentence which said, “Extreme hairstyles such as carvings, mohawks, spikes, etc. are not allowed.”