In September, a Kansas woman received an email from a school administrator about her son’s hair.
Her 8-year-old, a member of the Wyandotte Nation, had been growing his hair long, following the tribe’s traditions. But the email warned that if he did not cut his hair, he would be sent home from school, according to a new letter from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Before the next school day, the 8-year-old was allegedly forced to cut his hair because school officials would not grant him an exemption from a school policy stipulating that boys’ hair cannot “touch the collar of a crew neck T-shirt, cover the eyebrows or extend below the earlobes.” The lack of an exemption violated the student’s religious freedom rights, the ACLU wrote in a letter Friday, imploring officials to get rid of the policy and allow the boy to grow his hair out.
“It’s really devastating for an 8-year-old for their school to be telling them that they’re not allowed to come to the school as the person they are,” said Jennesa Calvo-Friedman, an ACLU staff attorney. “It’s basically communicating to them that they, in their identity and this thing that they are proud of, are not welcome in the school.”
Todd Ferguson, Girard Unified School District 248’s superintendent, said in a statement Sunday that he could not comment on individual students, citing privacy laws, but said that the school board plans to discuss the policy during its Dec. 14 meeting.
“Nothing matters more to the USD 248 district and staff than creating a safe, respectful and caring school for every student,” his statement said.
In recent years, Native American students across the country have been pushing for their traditions to be respected on school grounds and in graduation ceremonies. But incidents like the one in Kansas are a painful reminder of the government boarding schools that once forced Native American students to cut their hair, Calvo-Friedman said. For more than 150 years, countless numbers of children were taken from their families and placed in boarding schools, an attempt by the federal government to erase their Native American culture.
The Kansas student, whose name is redacted from the letter, started to grow out his hair after seeing men with long hair at a Wyandotte Nation event this summer, according to the letter. Wearing it long made him feel like he was following in the footsteps of the other Wyandotte men, who only cut their hair when a loved one dies.
But in August, officials at R.V. Haderlein Elementary School told the student he needed to cut his hair, citing its dress code policy, according to the ACLU letter.
After the student was told to cut his hair, his mother went to the school to request an exemption, citing her son’s heritage and spiritual beliefs. But officials told her there were no exemptions, according to the letter.
The next month, she received the email from a school administrator, who again said that her son needed to cut his hair, according to the ACLU. The administrator told the boy’s mother to call the district’s superintendent if she wanted to discuss the policy more, but her calls and voice mails to him went unreturned, according to the letter.
That weekend, the student cut his hair so he could keep attending school, a decision that “caused him distress,” according to the ACLU.
The ACLU wrote that the school’s policy has the potential to “disproportionately impact Native American students.” The ACLU also alleged that the policy could constitute sex discrimination, saying the stipulations about boys’ hair send a message “that they cannot be feminine in any way, and this message harms all students by promoting rigid views of gender norms and roles.”
The ACLU asked in its letter for an immediate exemption for the student, allowing him to grow his hair past his shoulders and wear it loose or in a braid, “as his tribal and religious customs dictate.” The organization has requested a response from district officials by Dec. 1.
Beyond the legal points, Calvo-Friedman said, the family’s request for an exemption boils down to a “basic point.”
“The length of your hair has nothing to do with your ability to learn or your ability to go to school,” she said.