Ellen DeGeneres and Alicia Keys Give $20K Scholarship to Black Teen Banned From Graduation For His Dreads

A Black teen who is not being allowed to walk at graduation over his dreadlocks was awarded a $20,000 scholarship by Ellen DeGeneres and Alicia Keys.

Barber Hills High School in Mont Belvieu, Texas told student DeAndre Arnold that he cannot participate in his graduation ceremony unless he cuts his dreadlocks.

Arnold, 18, was told in December that he would not be able to walk at his graduation this spring because his hair was not within the school’s guidelines. The school’s dress code prohibits male students from having hair that extends below the eyebrows or below the earlobes.

“Male students’ hair must not extend below the top of a t-shirt collar or be gathered or worn in a style that would allow the hair to extend below the top of a t-shirt collar, below the eyebrows, or below the earlobes when let down,” the dress codestates.

In response to the controversy, DeGeneres invited Arnold to appear on her daytime talk show “The Ellen Show”on January 29. During his appearance, she expressed her support and, along with singer Alicia Keys, surprised him with a $20,000 check to go toward his college education.

“I wanted to tell you that, I couldn’t believe the story when I heard it,” Keys told the teen. “I’m super proud of you for standing up for what you know is right. And I know the school needs to do the right thing.”

Arnold told DeGeneres that he styles his hair with dreads to honor his father’s culture.

“It’s really important to me because my dad is from Trinidad, it’s part of our culture and heritage,” said Arnold. “I really wish the school would kind of be open to other cultures and just, at least let us try to tell you some things. Don’t just shut us out.”

He said that if he were to go back to school, he’d face in-school suspension or alternative school, which is reserved for students who misbehave.

“I’ve worked for this all my life,” he told the daytime talk show host. “I deserve this moment to walk across stage.”

DeGeneres also pleaded with school officials to allow Arnold to return to class and to graduate with his friends.

“I am begging you. This kid is a good kid. He deserves to graduate, to walk with all the other kids,” she said. “He’s a good guy. I just am urging you to do the right thing. Please change your mind.”

What Critics Are Saying

Arnold would be required to cut his hair if he wanted to return to class and walk during graduation. He and his family have called the dress code sexist, because it allows female students to sport long hair.

“My hair has nothing to do with my ‘excellence,’ as we say in Barbers Hill, how smart I am, what kind of job I’m going to get or my character,” the high school senior told KHOU.

Arnold’s cousin, 16-year-old Kaden Bradford, was also suspended and told he could not return to school unless he cuts his dreadlocks. Bradford’s mother, Cindy Bradford, told ABC News that the boy has been growing out his dreads since sixth grade.

The school’s policy was slammed by community members, celebrities and people on social media as being racist. Local activists threatened school officials with continuous protests at a board meeting. Gerry Wayne Monroe, executive director of the United Urban Alumni Association, told ABC News the policy is directly linked to the lack of diversity on the school board.

“The population of minorities is very, very small,” Monroe said of the community. The town of Mont Belvieu, Texas is 78.1 percent white, 11.8 percent Hispanic/Latinx and 9 percent Black, according to datausa.io. All the board members save for one, who is Hispanic, are white.

Superintendent Gregory Poole pushed back on the notion that the policy is racist, telling “CBS This Morning”that the decision to suspend Arnold was about the length of his hair and a 30-year rule.

“We’d love to see DeAndre back in class, and there’s no way we would inhibit him from graduating,” Poole said. “But we are gonna be fair to the 6,200 other kids that have to comply by the same policy.”

Barber Hills High School Principal Rick Kana did not respond to a request for comment.

States With Laws Against Hair Discrimination

  • California: In July 2019, California became the first state to outlaw racial discrimination based on natural hairstyles. The measure was approved unanimously by the State Assembly and signed into law by Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom. The legislation, known as the Crown Act, prohibits employers and schools from enforcing grooming policies that have a disproportionate impact on people of color, The New York Times reported.

  • New York: New York quickly became the second state to ban discrimination based on natural hairstyles when Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill amending the state’s Human Rights Law, NBC News reported. The bill updated the definition of race by adding “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.”

  • New Jersey: In December 2019, New Jersey joined California and New York in banning discrimination based on hairstyles. Like California, the Crown Act in New Jersey outlaws discrimination against people in public spaces, their work or their schools due to their hair texture, hair type and protective hair styles. The bill, which updates the state’s Law Against Discrimination, was signed by Democratic Governor Phil Murphy. The legislation was introduced after a local high school wrestler was forced to cut his hair or face forfeiture of a match.

  • States Considering Similar Legislation: Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin [According to The Crown Coalition]

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About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.