By Jessica Pollard, originally published in the Santa Fe New Mexican on July 17, 2021

An Albuquerque girl alleges in a new federal lawsuit she faced racial discrimination at her public middle school when she was disciplined for having “subtle streaks of purple running through her braided hair.”

The civil rights complaint, filed last month in the U.S. District Court in New Mexico, also accuses Albuquerque Public Schools of a history of bias against Black students when it comes to disciplinary measures.

According to the complaint, the 13-year-old girl, who is Black, was placed on an in-school suspension at Cleveland Middle School in December 2019 for having the purple highlights in her hair, on the grounds that the hair coloring violated school policy. However, the suit says, other students with similar hair coloring who were not Black were not disciplined by school officials.

The girl has experienced emotional distress and no longer feels welcome at the school, the complaint says.

It seeks an award for compensatory damages and other relief and asks the court to order the Albuquerque school board to end disciplinary practices that disproportionately target minority students. It also asks that the court order the board to regularly report its efforts to comply.

The complaint names the school board as a defendant, along with board Chairman David Peercy, Cleveland Middle School and its principal, Marisol Fraga, and Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Scott Elder.

The complaint alleges the girl’s unfair suspension is just one instance in a long history of disproportionate disciplinary measures taken against the district’s African American students. It says U.S. Department of Education data shows African American students made up 2.5 percent of Albuquerque Public Schools’ population in 2018-19 but accounted for 4.3 percent of in-school suspensions. It cites similar numbers at Cleveland Middle School.

The suit comes after the Legislature and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham adopted a new law that prohibits schools from racial discrimination based on hairstyles and head coverings.

Attorney Jacob Candelaria, who also is a state senator, is representing the girl, who is not named in the suit, and her mother, Elizabeth Roland.

Candelaria also is representing Roland in a state District Court case accusing Albuquerque Public Schools of violating the state Inspection of Public Records Act.

In 2020, Candelaria’s firm filed a records request on Roland’s behalf to obtain student discipline data broken down by race for 2017-19. The district did not respond to the request by the deadline under the law, according to the suit. Officials then denied the request.

A hearing on the case is scheduled in late August.