As students go back to school across the state, families are facing unprecedented challenges. And as some students attend classes online, others are venturing back into the classroom or doing a hybrid of in-person and remote learning. Even in these trying times, students continue to face challenges that existed even before COVID. In hallways, classrooms, and even online, students still face different forms bullying, harassment, and discrimination on the basis of their gender identity, sexual orientation, sex, race, and religion.

Race-based discrimination continues to be embedded in many of these dress code policies, where Black students are not allowed to wear their natural hair. Another form of discrimination we are fighting is the use of dress and grooming codes that treat male and female students differently by requiring male students to wear short hair or by allowing only female students to wear jewelry, makeup, or skirts. While you would assume those polices are just a thing of the past, school districts throughout the state continue to subject students to outdated stereotypes based on sex and race.

The United States has a long and violent history of using physical traits and cultural practices, like hair texture and protective hairstyles, as a proxy for discrimination against Black people. These policies actively harm Black students by prohibiting them from fully presenting themselves with natural hairstyles like cornrows, afros, locs, and braids. By operating as a ban on natural Black hair, race-based dress code policies send a negative message to Black students, that their bodies are not “professional enough” or “up to standards.”

This July, the ACLU of Texas represented Kaden Bradford in a grievance process against Barbers Hill ISD, after the school district forced Kaden and his cousin, De’Andre Arnold, to choose between cutting their locs or being permanently stuck in in-school suspension. But two weeks ago, in a lawsuit brought by the NAACP-LDF, a federal court declared this district’s grooming code to be unconstitutional sex discrimination since it requires male, but not female, students to wear short hair. The court also found it likely that the district engaged in intentional race discrimination by preventing Black male students from wearing locs.

This decision was a big win for Kaden, since he can now return to school without being forced to cut his natural Black hair. And the decision highlights what Kaden had argued all along ¬– that dress codes that treat students differently based on sex and race are inherently discriminatory and often prevent students from expressing their true and authentic selves.

The ACLU of Texas examined the dress and grooming codes of over 1,000 public school districts in Texas and found the same type of gender-specific hair requirement that Barbers Hill ISD had in 477 of them. This means that almost half of Texas school districts have dress and grooming codes that are unconstitutional and out of step with federal law.

Today, the ACLU of Texas sent each of these districts a letter demanding that they amend their dress and grooming codes to remove provisions that discriminate on the basis of sex, race, or religion. As the school year begins, districts should act quickly to ensure that their policies are lawful and that students aren’t disciplined due to outdated, unconstitutional, and discriminatory policies.

In August, the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) changed its dress code guidance to caution school districts against enforcing discriminatory policies in light of changing federal law in this area. TASB encouraged “district leadership [to] collaborate thoughtfully with parents from diverse backgrounds in setting grooming standards” and explained that gender-based dress and grooming restrictions have been repeatedly declared unlawful in courts across the country.

It is time for school districts to change their policies to remove gender stereotypes and to ensure that students of every race, gender, and religious background can succeed in school. State legislators also have a chance to enact statewide policies to stop this kind of discrimination from happening ¬– both by enacting the CROWN Act and by passing statewide nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ students.

We must re-imagine the societal structures and cultural norms that disproportionately affect and disadvantage Black and LGBTQ students. School districts should recognize that discriminating against hair texture, style, and length is wrong and negatively impacts students’ lives. We should aim to create an environment where students feel comfortable to express their full selves, without retribution. And we, as a community, can also push school leaders to create a more inclusive place for all our students.