Civil rights violations can come in many different shapes and sizes, and unfortunately these violations sometimes come from places of power.
When Jaylon Sewell, a Black student at Neville High School in Monroe, Louisiana, was harassed by school officials for his hairstyle, he and his mother sued school officials for discrimination.
Originally, a federal court originally determined 2018 in that the suit failed to state a claim, but just last month, an appeals court overturned the ruling to allow the case to move forward.
Let’s take a closer look at the specific claims of Sewell’s case, as well as the larger civil rights implications.
First, what are civil rights?
Civil rights are federal statutes that protect a person’s rights and spell out punishment for anyone or group who violate these rights.
Examples of civil rights include:
- Right to freedom from discrimination based on gender, color, race or religion
- Right to public education
- Rights to vote and be voted for
- Rights to use of public properties like parks, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, etc.
- Right to a fair hearing
In Sewell’s case, the focus is on the right to freedom from discrimination based on gender, color, race or religion.
What happened in the Jaylon Sewell case?
In 2016, Jaylon Sewell was a student at Neville High School when he decided to dye his hair blonde in an homage to football star Odell Beckham Jr. But despite other, white students at his school also having dyed hair, Sewell was singled out for his hair by school officials.
- The first day of school that fall, Jaylon wasn’t allowed to attend class or go to lunch.
- He was ridiculed by school officials and called a “thug,” called a “fool,” and asked whether he “was gay with ‘that mess’ in his head.”
- Sewell even alleges that one particular school official encouraged a female student to make a false claim of sexual assault against him.
By November, Sewell was suspended and his mother only received the necessary information two days before his expulsion hearing. This was when Sewell and his mother filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
Originally, a federal court originally determined 2018 in that the suit failed to state a claim, but just last month, an appeals court overturned the ruling to allow the case to move forward in consideration of the following claims:
- Intentional discrimination: While this seems to be one of the most logical claims for this type of suit, Sewell and his attorney did not file the claim within the deadline set by law, so they can’t move forward with this claim.
- Retaliation: The lawsuit claims that after activist Shaun King wrote an article about Sewell’s plight for the New York Daily News, Sewell faced more even more harassment from officials. However, the appeals court did not find enough evidence of this claim to move forward with this aspect of the case.
- Harassment or hostile environment discrimination: Because of repeated discrimination from mutliple school officials (and the refusal of school board members to put a stop to it), the appeals court found that Sewell’s claims of harassment and hostile environment discrimination hold weight. The judge who wrote the opinion states: “The harassment may well have been so severe, pervasive, and offensive that it denied Sewell an educational benefit.”
Now that Sewell can move forward with his case, it will be an important one to watch for all proponents of civil rights.
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