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Kansas school allegedly forced a Native American child to cut his hair

The ACLU is demanding the school change their dress code policy, claiming it violates religious freedom as it was applied to the young student.
Kansas school allegedly forced a Native American child to cut his hair
Posted at 1:12 PM, Nov 20, 2023

An 8-year-old boy was forced to cut his hair to comply with his Kansas elementary school’s dress code, despite his mother explaining to the school that his long hair was following his Native American faith and culture. Now, the American Civil Liberties Union is demanding the school district change its policy, claiming it violates religious freedom. 

In a letter sent Friday to R.V. Haderlein Elementary School in Girard, Kansas, the ACLU said school officials told the student he would have to cut his long hair to comply with the school dress code. 

The dress code outlined in the school’s student handbook states, “Boy’s Hair Length: Hair is not to touch the collar of a crew neck t-shirt, cover the eyebrows, or extend below the earlobes. Ponytails, rat tails, or any other style that would circumvent the policy are not permitted.” It says nothing about how girls should wear their hair.

The ACLU said the boy’s mother went to the school in September and explained they are members listed on the tribal roll of the federally-recognized Wyandotte Nation based in Oklahoma, near the Kansas state line. The boy was inspired to grow his hair long after seeing other Wyandotte men wear their hair long at the tribe’s annual “Gathering of the Little Turtles.” 

Traditionally, Wyandotte men only cut their hair when they are mourning the loss of a loved one, the ACLU said. The boy was honoring his Native American ancestry and spiritual identity by doing the same. 

Despite the mother explaining the cultural reasons behind her son’s long hair and offering to provide documentation of their Native American heritage, the ACLU said the school insisted the boy cut his hair or he would be sent home. 

“The present-day harms of school policies that restrict Native American boys from wearing long hair must be understood in the historical context of multifaceted efforts to separate Native American children from their families and tribes and to deny them their rights of cultural and religious expression,” the ACLU’s letter to the school district reads. “Haderlein's policy impacts Native American students disproportionately and perpetuates a legacy of cultural, psychological, and spiritual trauma and discrimination.”

Ultimately, the boy’s mother decided to cut his hair in September so he could remain in school, the ACLU said. 

In a statement provided to Scripps News, Girard Schools USD 248 Superintendent Todd Ferguson said, “Nothing matters more to the USD 248 district and staff than creating a safe, respectful and caring school for every student. I am unable to comment on individual students, families or employees, due to confidentiality laws.”

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The ACLU maintains the school’s dress code policy applied to the child violates state and federal law. 

The organization said the policy is particularly troubling given the historical context of Native American boarding schools in the U.S. formed under the Indian Civilization Act of 1819 by which Native American children were stripped of their cultural identities by cutting their hair, among other systemic abuses.  

“Additionally, the school's discriminatory sex-based hair policy sends a damaging message to boys 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’s letter stated.

The organization claims "schools may not impose different requirements on students based on their sex without an exceedingly persuasive justification."

The letter urges the school district to reevaluate and rescind the hair-length policy in its entirety and, in the meantime, grant an immediate exception to the Native American child.

It asks the school to let the ACLU know by Dec. 1 whether it plans to comply with its request.

Ferguson told Scripps News the school’s board of education is planning to review and consider updates to the dress code policy when they meet on Dec. 14. 

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