ACLU Sends Warning After Kansas School Forces Native American Boy to Cut His Hair

In Girard’s R.V. Haderlein Elementary, an 8-year-old Native American boy was compelled to cut his hair by school officials, despite his objection that he grew it out to connect with his cultural heritage.

Last Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas sent a letter to the district warning that the school policy violates religious freedom and reinforces “rigid gender norms.”

According to the ACLU letter, “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. Haderlein’s policy impacts Native American students disproportionately and perpetuates a legacy of cultural, psychological, and spiritual trauma and discrimination.”

R.V. Haderlein Elementary enforces a dress code policy stating that boys must have short hair, with “hair not to touch the collar of a crew neck t-shirt … or extend below the earlobes.” This mandate doesn’t apply to female students.

The 8-year-old boy, who belongs to the Wyandotte Nation, started growing his hair after attending the Nation’s annual gathering and witnessing the cultural tradition of men with long hair. In the Wyandotte Nation, it is common for men to grow their hair and only cut it while mourning as part of their spiritual and religious practice.

In August, the boy’s family was warned by school officials that his hair needed to be cut to comply with the dress code, as stated in the ACLU letter. The family, for their protection, has chosen to remain anonymous.

In early September, the boy’s mother requested an exemption from the policy due to their heritage and religious practices but was denied. On Friday, September 22, the school’s assistant principal, Joni Benso, emailed the mother. Benso acknowledged “concerns about the policy” but insisted that the mother should cut the boy’s hair over the weekend or else he would be sent home, as stated in the ACLU’s letter.

After multiple failed attempts to contact the district’s superintendent, the boy’s mother went ahead and cut his hair over the weekend, fearing that he would be sent home and possibly suspended from school each day, as mentioned in the ACLU’s account of events.

The superintendent, Todd Ferguson, declined to comment on the case and mentioned that the district would reassess the dress code policy during a board meeting in December.

The ACLU is now urging the school to accommodate the child and grant him an exemption from the policy, arguing that it violates the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, the U.S. Constitution, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Officials also recommend that the school completely repeal the policy and allow all boys to grow their hair out.

“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,” states the ACLU letter.

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