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June 20, 2019

New Jersey wrestler forced to cut dreadlocks still being victimized by school referees’ ‘unrelenting fixation’ on his hair, lawyer claims

January 11, 2019
Buena Regional High School wrestler Andrew Johnson gets his hair cut minutes before his Dec. 19 match in Buena, N.J., after a referee told the teen he would forfeit his bout if he did not have his dreadlocks cut off. (Michael Frankel/SNJTODAY.COM via AP)

A lawyer for the New Jersey high school wrestler who was forced have his dreadlocks cut before a match last month says the teen is still being victimized for his hair.

When Andrew Johnson of Buena Regional High School in Atlantic County competed in his first match last Saturday since the Dec. 19 shearing incident, a referee told a coach from the school that he’d have to cover his hair before wrestling, Johnson’s lawyer Dominic Speziali wrote in a letter obtained by NBC News.


Speziali sent the letter to the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights Wednesday, NBC reports, explaining that Johnson, 16, took a break from wrestling competitions after last month’s match caused a national uproar. At the December match, a referee demanded the teen chop off his dreads or forfeit the match, sparking outrage and charges of racism.

Speziali’s letter stated that when Johnson’s mom questioned why her son would have to cover his hair at last Saturday’s match, she was told “that there was some confusion and it was another wrestler that would have to wear a hair covering, not Andrew.”

“However, no wrestler for Buena or Buena’s first opponent wore any type of hair covering,” the letter added. “Andrew wrestled in four matches without wearing a hair covering and without any referee raising an issue about his hair.”

But on Monday, a top New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association wrestling official and an executive council member of the New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association sent an email to chapters with pictures of hairstyles that would require a cover, according to NJ Advance Media. The photos showed a black person sporting what appears to be short, braided or dreadlocked hair on the top of his head, with shaved sides, the outlet reported.

Elliott Hopkins, the director of sports, sanctioning and student services for the National Federation of State High School Associations — which is responsible for determining the rules for high school sports including wrestling — said the hairstyle portrayed in the photo would not require a legal hair covering, according to NJ Advance Media.

Speziali wrote in his letter that the day before Johnson’s team was supposed to compete in a match this past Wednesday, a referee told Buena’s athletic director that he “planned to require Andrew to wear a hair covering if he intended on wrestling.” Then the match was canceled, according to NBC.

“It appears, for reasons that the Division can hopefully soon unmask, that certain officials have a desire to unnecessarily escalate and prolong this ordeal due on an unrelenting fixation on the hair of a 16-year-old young man that asked for absolutely none of this,” Speziali wrote.

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