Appeals court says suit over “two-toned” hair can proceed

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals says Neville Dean of Students harassed a student over the color of his hair for a year with the support of the school principal and superintendent Brent Vidrine, who knew about it but did nothing. Former student, Jaylon Sewell, now has the green light to sue for damages.

They thought it was over, but an Appeals court now says that a former Neville High School student should have his complaint that he was harassed because of his hair color, heard in a full trial.

The school board will meet in executive session Tuesday night to hear details about the 2017 lawsuit filed by Jaylon Sewell, who claimed that he was harassed for an entire school year by Neville Dean of Students Roosevelt Rankins because he colored his hair blonde.

  Sewell said Rankins ridiculed him, but the school’s principal, Whitney Martin, and Superintendent Brent Vidrine knew about it but did nothing. In retaliation, Sewell said Martin tried to expel him, but the expulsion was overturned.

 When Sewell sued, the school board sought to have the case snuffed out because 1)It was filed late, and 2)It did not make a specific claim, both technicalities. The Monroe court agreed and dismissed Sewell’s claim. However, in 2019, the case was appealed, and the 5th Circuit court decided that Sewell’s lawsuit against the School Board, Rankins, Martin, and Vidrine, although filed late, can be heard because the alleged harassment occurred over a year without a specific date and had an “accumulative effect.”

What the appeals court said

 The Appeals Court gave the following account of the disputed action:

  “On the first day of school in 2016 at Monroe’s Neville High School, Dean of Students Roosevelt Rankins asked teachers to send students with two-toned hair to his office. All the students sent to Rankins’s office were African American males. One was Jaylon Sewell, who wore a “two-toned” blonde hairstyle.

   Rankins and Principal Whitney Martin did not let Sewell attend class that day because of his hair. 

  Monroe City School Board’s dress code prohibited “hair dyed outlandish colors.” Still, many students of all races, male and female, wore dyed hair to school. Students sported blonde, purple, and red colors as well as fiery-colored hair tips. Some African American female students wore multicolored weaves in their hair. Nevertheless, Neville High did not discipline anyone other than Sewell for violating the hair policy during the 2016–17 school year. 

  On the second day of school, Sewell’s mother, Bonnie Kirk, met first with Martin and then with superintendent Brent Vidrine. Kirk told both that she believed school administrators were discriminating against Sewell because he is an African American male. 

  When Sewell returned to school, Rankins “ridiculed” him “every other day” by calling him a “thug” and a “fool.” At one point, Rankins asked Sewell if he “was gay with ‘that mess’ in his head.” Rankins also discouraged other students from talking with Sewell. Sewell became “depressed” and “sad.” 

  In November, school officials suspended Sewell. Sewell alleges that Rankins “encouraged” a female student to “lie” and accuse him of sexual assault. Rankins told Sewell that he “wouldn’t be getting in so much trouble if his hair were not that color.”

  Martin soon recommended Sewell for expulsion. When Kirk spoke to Martin about her recommendation, Martin mentioned Sewell’s hair too.

  School officials provided Kirk with documentation about the suspension and expulsion just two days before Sewell’s expulsion hearing. 

  Kirk filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

  After the hearing, the board’s expulsion committee voted not to expel Sewell. The committee’s chair explained that it chose not to suspend Sewell because the timing of events was suspicious; school officials did not complete expulsion documentation until four days after the alleged assault and did not deliver the documentation to Kirk until ten days after that.

  In the spring, media reports, including one in the New York Daily News, reported on what had happened to Sewell. The media attention led to school officials “ostracizing” and “ridiculing” him “even more.” Sewell was “distraught and traumatized.”

What the court decided

   The appeals court agreed that discrimination cases have time limits and allowed the district court’s dismissal of race discrimination claims to be dismissed because it was filed after the legal deadline.

   However, the court allowed the suit to go forward because it met legal thresholds for harassment, which is not the same as that for racial discrimination.

  The court said Rankin’s terminologies used to ridicule Sewell, and not condemned by Martin or Vidrine supported a harassment claim. The court’s ruling said descriptions such as “thug” invoke “racist concepts already planted in the public consciousness.”

    The court said when the State Department of Education investigated the complaint, it concluded that “the District did not advance a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its different treatment of” Sewell.  

   The court ruling said, “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.”

   Finally, the court said, Sewell’s complaint was carried before several school district officials, including Superintendent Brent Vidrine. 

   The court said, “Not only did Vidrine know about the harassment, but he also could have done something about it. For an official’s knowledge to be imputable to a school board, he must be vested with power to supervise the harassing employee and to take action that would end the harassment.”

   The court said school districts are responsible for keeping students safe, but Vidrine’s only response was that he would “talk to” Rankins, and the harassment continued.

The court did not rule on the merits of the case but concluded that it should not have been thrown out. It reversed the 4th District Court decision.

   A trial on the matter will likely be set unless the school board decides to settle Sewell’s issue out of court.