On the second day of middle school at Magnolia ISD in Texas, in September 2021, Danielle Miller got a phone call from her kid’s principal, asking her to cut Tristan’s shoulder-length hair.
At the time, Tristan identified as nonbinary. Now, they use he/they pronouns interchangeably. Cutting their hair meant losing a key part of their identity, they told Miller. Besides, they had had long hair for years and never received a warning or reprimand for it, Miller said.
“When I told Tristan that they were going to have to cut their hair because it was out of dress code, I was met with just absolute devastation and heartbreak,” she said. “And it wasn’t because it was a kid being told they had to do something they wouldn’t want to do, it’s because Tristan was able to identify as nonbinary based on being able to present themselves as feminine with long hair.”
According to the district’s dress code at the time, Tristan, then 11, was not supposed to have long hair because they were assigned male at birth. Miller explained to their principal over the phone that their hair was part of Tristan’s identity, but was told that they would have to go to in-school suspension if they didn’t do it.
“I explained to the principal, Tristan’s identification and just how Tristan likes to present themselves. And I said, ‘what would you do if you had a child that was like this?’ And she said, ’I would cut his hair,’ and hung up the phone,” Miller said.
“And it was at that point that I realized that there was no compassion. There was no understanding. There was no acceptance for the LGBTQ community in that school.”
The principal, Coni Felinski, did not respond to requests for comment.
Students of color, girls, and LGBTQ+ students are often disciplined disproportionately for dress code violations, according to a government accountability report, which called on the Department of Education to address dress code disparities. Dress codes are also gendered, the report found, which makes it difficult for nonbinary, gender nonconforming, or transgender students to adhere to them.
Magnolia ISD did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Parents band together to file a lawsuit against the district
Magnolia ISD’s old dress code had gendered policies for the length of hair, stating that “hair will ... [b]e no longer than the bottom of a dress shirt collar, bottom of the ear, and out of the eyes for male students,” and hair must also “[n]ot be pinned up in any fashion nor be worn in a ponytail or bun for male students,” according to the lawsuit.
After that phone call, Miller called the ACLU and Lambda Legal, a civil rights organization focusing on defending the rights of LGBTQ+ people, looking for help, and was referred to another lawyer. At the same time, she posted about Tristan’s suspension on Facebook, and other parents reached out to her. The parents then started a Facebook group, and when the ACLU got back in touch with Miller, began collaborating on what eventually became a lawsuit against Magnolia ISD on behalf of seven students, between the ages of 7 and 17, who had been allegedly discriminated against based on the same policy prohibiting boys, but not girls, from wearing long hair.
Meanwhile, Tristan continued to attend in-school suspension in a separate classroom for 10 days. While in that classroom, Miller says a teacher questioned why Tristan wouldn’t just cut their hair, which the mother considered bullying. After Miller’s lawyer sent a cease and desist letter to Magnolia ISD and the ACLU sent a letter of support, Tristan was allowed back into their regular classroom.
Some Magnolia ISD students sent to in-school suspension spent up to a month there, cut off from extracurriculars and regular classes, according to the lawsuit. Others were removed from campus and moved to a disciplinary alternative education program, typically reserved for students who have violated state or federal law or committed serious violations of school policies.
“It was a complete overreach of the school to discipline them so incredibly harshly that it has lasting effects on these children still,” Miller said.
After the lawsuit was filed in October 2021, Miller and other parents spoke at a school board meeting that month about the district’s gendered hair policy.
Days after the lawsuit was filed, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordered the district to allow students back into their regular classes and activities, according to the Houston Chronicle.
In December, after the school board voted to reach an agreement with the ACLU, both parties jointly requested for the lawsuit to be dismissed, according to the Chronicle.
The district expunged the disciplinary records of the students, and paid all the litigation fees as part of the agreement. It also updated the dress code to state that any student could have long hair.
“Magnolia ISD has updated the dress and grooming code per the settlement agreement terms for male students to no longer have a certain length of hair,” the district said in a statement to the Community Impact newspaper on Dec. 14.
Despite the changes, Miller removed Tristan, now 13, from the district this school year.
“We could have resolved this the second day of school, and they’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight parents on something that is so gross,” she said. “To target somebody’s identification, to take away a child’s respect, just to adhere to some 1970s dress code.”
New dress code still allows in-school suspensions for violations
When the district changed its policy, it removed the gendered language. The new policy says hair must be kept clean, well groomed, and worn out of the eyes, and be a natural hair color. Certain hairstyles, such as shaved designs in hair, are still not allowed. It no longer specifies hair lengths based on gender. But the district kept what Miller described as its harsh enforcement, which drove her to unenroll Tristan.
The punishment for dress code violations remains the same: in-school suspension. Magnolia ISD did not respond to multiple requests for comment about its new dress code.
“If the principal determines that a student’s grooming or clothing violates the school’s dress code, the student will be given an opportunity to correct the problem at school,” the dress code policy says. “If not corrected, the student may be assigned to in-school suspension for the remainder of the day, until the Magnolia ISD Student Handbook problem is corrected, or until a parent or designee brings an acceptable change of clothing to the school.”
Repeated offenses can carry stricter consequences, it says.
How districts enforce dress codes can be troubling as the dress code policy itself, according to Linda Morris, an ACLU attorney.
“The fact that these students spent weeks in in-school-suspension because they didn’t want to cut their hair, I think speaks volumes to the commitment of that school district to enforcing a policy that was discriminatory and very, very harmful,” Morris said. “I think it’s just really the audacity of the school district to punish those students for truly just trying to dress and groom in a way that felt true to themselves and their identities.”