Ex-probation officer sues state over dreadlocks policy

A former probation officer in the state Department of Corrections is suing the agency, claiming his pay was docked and he was subsequently fired for insubordination because he refused to trim his dreadlocks, even though female staffers were not given the same directive.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in June ruled Richard Williams of Stone Mountain had the right to institute a civil action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. He filed the suit this week in U.S. District Court in Atlanta.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan said the agency does not comment on active lawsuits.

Williams said he was employed by the agency from 2001 until May 2012 and was working in its Central DeKalb Probation Office when he was fired.

The 43-year-old said that when he joined the agency he had a “boy cut” but over the years allowed his hair to grow longer. By 2005, Williams said, his hair was shoulder-length and it has grown considerably down his back since then.

“What I love about my hair is that it is a part of me and of who I am,” Williams told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday. “I had been growing my hair for 10 years, and it had never been an issue.”

In his complaint, Williams said that in June 2010 a superior instructed him to consider cutting his hair. After being asked again a month later, Williams said he informed the superior that he was not going to trim his hair because of his “rights, religious beliefs and spiritual faith.”

The complaint said the agency instituted a “retaliatory” policy in January 2012 forbidding men from wearing dreadlocks below the collar. In part the policy said: “Males will not adorn dreadlocks or braids and hair shall not extend over the top of a shirt collar.”

Hogan, the department spokeswoman, said Friday that the policy is still in effect.

Williams called the policy discriminatory because it specifically mentioned males but not females, who were allowed to wear their dreadlocks below the collar. The same month, January 2012, Williams said he was instructed to leave work, get a trim and return “within two hours.”

He received a letter of reprimand later that month after once again refusing to cut his hair, and in February he was ordered to turn in his probation officer’s badge, weapon and uniform. He also said he received a 5 percent pay cut before eventually being fired.

Williams said several other co-workers with dreadlocks trimmed their hair after the new policy was put in place. He said he is seeking unspecified damages in his lawsuit.

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