Earlier this year, in Pearland, Texas, 13-year-old Juelz Trice faced unusual punitive actions at his middle school, not for something he did in the classroom — but for his haircut. First reported by the Houston Chronicle in April, Juelz’s said that he was accused of a dress code violation and given an ultimatum that made him choose between having his scalp defaced by a permanent marker or getting suspended.
Four months after the incident, Juelz’s family has decided to sue the Pearland Independent School District (ISD).
Like many other students, 13-year-old Juelz got a fresh haircut in hopes of looking and feeling his best on his first day of 7th grade at Berry Miller Junior High. Although Juelz’s haircut only featured a simple design, his teacher, Jeanette Peterson, said it violated dress code, so she gave him two options: “You can either go to [in-school suspension] or color it in,” Trice recalls.
Trice's parents told ABC13 Eyewitness News that they were unaware of the incident until their son told them after school. His mother, Angela Washington said, "When it first happened, I was very upset because I didn't find out until after he got off the bus and he got into the car and said, 'Look what they did to my head.'“ Juelz remembers that his encounter was “the talk of the school” for at least the next two days, causing him a great deal of anguish. According to the complaint, he “felt extremely degraded and suffered at least great embarrassment, shame, anxiety and depression.”
Despite Berry Miller’s mission statement dedicated to “awareness, acceptance and celebration of diversity,” such policies can be detrimental to the holistic wellbeing of a student. Hair styling is one of the most universal forms of self expression and individualization, so stifling that expression can have devastating effects.
In a 2007 study on Culture and Self Expression, UC Santa Barbara researchers, Heejung Kim, PhD, and Deborah Ko, PhD, concluded that “self-expression is a notion that is closely associated with a horde of positive concepts, such as freedom, creativity, style, courage, self-assurance, and even healing and spirituality,” however, “suppression of self-expression seems to be connected to mental illness and psychopathology. It has also been related to negative stress responses and to many physical problems such as coronary heart disease.”
“I’m totally disappointed.”— Erica Simon (@EricaOnABC13) April 24, 2019
Juelz Trice’s parents have received an apology for his head being drawn on, but they’re not sure if it’s good enough. They raised Juelz to be respectful and comply with adults, which is why he didn’t resist. pic.twitter.com/CiWKoZM8KY
Juelz’s parents have also spoken out about the potential damage being more than just psychological. Specifically, his father expressed concerns about exposing his son’s porous scalp to the chemicals in a permanent marker and previous data has given weight to his suspicions. “Permanent markers that bear the ACMI ‘non-toxic’ seal have been tested and deemed safe for art, even by children — but this does not include body art, such as drawing eyeliner, filling in tattoos or making temporary tattoos,” according to a piece from Thought Co. on Sharpie tattoos. The site goes on to list some of the chemicals that may “permeate the skin or enter the body through broken skin;” these include: “n-butanol, diacetone alcohol, cresol and xylene — a chemical capable of causing nervous system and organ damage.”
Since the incident, Pearland ISD has issued a statement saying that the practice is not condoned by the district, does not align with appropriate measures for dress code violations and said that they put the teacher involved on administrative leave. Additionally, a member of Pearland’s Board of Trustees, which is 86 percent white, Mike Floyd stated: "It's no secret that racism, whether intentional or not, has crept into the code." He continues, "The administration has made it clear that they are aware of the Board's stance that provisions which are rooted in cultural or racial inequalities must be changed, and anything less will be unacceptable in my opinion."
However, Juelz’s parents are unsatisfied with the school district’s efforts to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.
Their lawsuit, filed on August 18, alleges that Pearland ISD, a School Discipline Clerk, Head Principal Tony Barcelona and teacher Jeanette Peterson discriminated against Juelz by coloring in his hair. The complaint reveals disturbing details about the incident, including that multiple administrators took part and handled it in a mocking way. “[They] laughed as they took many minutes to color Juelz's scalp which then took many days of scrubbing to come off,” the complaint reads.
It goes on to discuss the cultural relevance and significance of his haircut, but also the fact that it could have been easily altered to fit the dress code — had his parents been properly contacted. The incident remains the only disciplinary action Juelz has been given, before or since.
In a statement sent to Yahoo Lifestyle, Juelz’s lawyer Randall Kallinen provides evidence that the 13-year-old’s experience is part of a larger pattern of racism in the school district. “According to a 2015 study by the United States Department of Justice Office for Civil Rights, while there were more than twice as many white students than African American enrolled in the Pearland ISD, African American students were suspended 143 percent more often than whites,” it reads.
Kllinen continues by condemning the incident, and raising concerns that the status quo will remain. “Despite this extremely shameful behavior and history of racial discrimination, the Pearland ISD has doubled down and now installed Tony Barcelona as head principal of the Berry Miller Junior High School, kept Day and Peterson in their current positions, and refused to meet with Juelz's parents to discuss their behavior or any training of Pearland ISD employees.”
Washington’s post about her son’s ordeal has amassed over 4,000 comments and almost 6,000 reactions, many from those expressing horror. “Absolutely unacceptable that an ADULT would suggest this, let alone actually do it,” one commenter wrote. “He could have been sent home with a note and a barber could have cut it all low one length to get rid of the design. I cannot believe the audacity.
Press charges for endangering a child.”
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