East Texas High Schooler Told Braids Are a ‘Distraction’ for Graduation Ceremony


A high school principal called the mother of senior Kienjanae “K.J.” Hooper four days before her graduation ceremony to request that her hairstyle be changed  a hairstyle that had taken 10 hours to braid. 

K.J., a National Honors Society-inductee and athlete, had worked part-time at a local car wash to save up the money to treat herself to a graduation gift of braids with red highlights. The Monday before Hooper’s Friday graduation, however, K.J.’s mother Kieana Hooper received a call from Gladewater High School Principal Cathy Bedair saying that Hooper’s hairstyle was in violation of the school’s dress code and would not be appropriate for the graduation ceremony. 

Hooper refused to make her daughter change her hair, and the principal called back to say that K.J. could walk as long as she concealed her hair by tucking it into her cap and down the back of her gown. The principal later concluded that K.J.’s hair was close enough to a natural tone. However, K.J.’s attorney, Waukeen McCoy, maintains that K.J. had never been formally informed that she would be allowed to walk without covering her hair.

K.J. told Essence that she is unsure if the principal’s concerns were race-driven, but she does think she is being unfairly targeted. K.J. maintains that if she was allowed to wear many different hairstyles in high school, including honey-blonde braids, without violating policy, her red-tinted braids for graduation should not be an issue.

“We hadn’t been in school for months, so I dyed my hair red; but it’s not bright red it’s more like burgundy,” K.J. said. “They’re saying it’s not okay because it’s not a ‘natural’ color, but I’ve seen some kids with blue and yellow hair and I haven’t heard anything about their parents getting calls.” 

The Gladewater Independent School District dress code states that “hair shall be cleaned, trimmed from eyes and well-groomed” and “hair coloring shall resemble a natural color.” The code does not discuss braids.  

Gladewater ISD Superintendent Sedric Clark insists that the principal’s issue with Hooper’s hairstyle was not because of it being in braids but because of the color. 

K.J. emphasized how trivial the issue was, stating that hair is just hair. She expressed that she didn’t think it should affect her ability to walk across the stage.

Now that she has graduated, K.J. wants to help people and hopes to pursue a career as a high-risk pediatric nurse.