Appeals Court Revives Race- and Sex-Bias Suit Over Student’s Dyed Hair

By Mark Walsh — September 11, 2020 2 min read

A federal appeals court has revived a key part of a race- and sex-discrimination lawsuit filed by a Louisiana high school student who alleges that he faced harassment from a school administrator over his dyed hair.

Jaylon Sewell, who is Black, alleges that he was called to the dean’s office on the first day of school at Neville High School in Monroe, La., in 2016 because of his two-toned blond-dyed hair. Sewell alleges that despite a dress code barring “hair dyed outlandish colors,” other students sported hair dyed blond, purple, and red, with some wearing fiery-colored hair tips.

Sewell alleges that he was the only student disciplined over dyed hair during the 2016-17 academic year. And after his mother met with the superintendent to complain that her son was being singled out as a Black male, the suit says, the dean of students ridiculed Sewell frequently as a “thug” and “fool,” and once asked him if he “was gay with that mess in his head.”

Sewell later faced an allegations of sexual assault of another student, which the suit contends was the result of the dean encouraging a female student to fabricate the accusation. The dean told Sewell around that time that he “wouldn’t be getting in so much trouble if his hair were not that color,” the suit alleges. A school board committee declined to expel Sewell over the alleged assault, court papers say.

Sewell and his mother filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights, which investigated and found that the Monroe City School District had violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibit, respectively, race discrimination and sex discrimination in federally funded schools.

The family sued the school district under Title VI and Title IX and raised other claims. A federal district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss on all claims.

In its Sept. 10 decision in Sewell v. Monroe City School Board, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, unanimously affirmed the dismissal of the student’s allegations of intentional discrimination and retaliation under Title VI and Title IX. The intentional discrimination claim was filed too late, the court said, while the retaliation claims failed because the school board was not deliberately indifferent to the possible retaliation.

“By contrast, Sewell’s harassment claim has some legs,” the appeals court said.

“First, it is plausible that [the dean’s] harassment of Sewell stemmed from a discriminatory view that African American males should not have two-toned blonde hair,” the court said. “Most obviously, [the dean] treated Sewell differently from students who were not black males.”

The appeals court said the OCR investigation “supports the plausibility of Sewell’s claims.”

The court said the alleged pattern of harassment by the dean over the student’s dyed hair “may well have been so severe, pervasive, and offensive that it denied Sewell an educational benefit.”

“Intense verbal abuse that comes from an authority figure—like a school administrator—and persists for most of the school year can constitute a hostile educational environment,” the court added. “Sewell has alleged sufficient facts to nudge his claims across the line from conceivable to plausible.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.

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