GIRARD, Kan. — Girard USD 248 is in the national spotlight concerning a recent issue with its dress code. According to a report in the Kansas Reflector, “officials at R.V. Haderlein Elementary in Girard forced an 8-year-old Native American boy to cut his hair, despite objections that he grew it out to connect with his cultural heritage” and that decision has drawn the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
According to the school’s student manual, boys cannot have hair that touches the collar of a crew neck t-shirt, covers the eyebrows, or extends below the earlobes. No ponytails, rattails, or “any other style that would circumvent the policy” is permitted. Boys must also remain clean shaven.
An eight-year-old boy became the eye of the storm when he grew his hair out over the summer. A member of the Wyandotte Nation, the young man adopted the cultural tradition after seeing men with long hair while attending the Nation’s annual gathering. It is custom among Wyandotte men to grow long hair, only cutting it when in mourning.
The boy’s mother was told by school officials in August to cut his hair or he would not be allowed to attend class. The mother appealed, asking for an exemption based on her son’s heritage and religion, but was told the long hair was not allowed.
According to the ACLU, in late September, the elementary school’s assistant principal told the mother that the young man’s hair needed to be cut over the weekend or he will be sent home. She relented, cutting his hair in the belief that her son would be suspended from school.
Much of the district’s dress code incorporated boiler-plate wording that is common among school districts such as, “no style of dress will be tolerated which is disruptive of the educational process.” It goes on to specifically prohibit certain styles of clothing like halter tops, see-through, anything that exposes the midriff, or any lettering or graphics promoting alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. These are all common parameters found in many schools.
However, when it comes to hair length for boys, the ACLU calls it a “discriminatory sex-based hair policy” that promotes “rigid views of gender norms and roles” and that there is no legitimate reason for imposing the requirement.
The ACLU alleges the policy violates state and federal laws and First Amendment rights.
Of the five rights protected by the First Amendment, the first listed is the freedom of religion. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” By making the young man cut his hair, the district has prohibited “the free exercise” of his religion, the ACLU claims.
Case law is also against the district. In Tinker v Des Moines (1969), a case about political speech in school, the Supreme Court ruled that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” adding that “school officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect.”
Tinker has since been used as precedent for a number of similar cases. Across the country, the ACLU has litigated several similar issues regarding religious rights, particularly when the rights of native tribes are at stake.
The other issue working against Girard is what the ACLU calls "multifaceted efforts to separate Native American children from their families and tribes and to deny them their rights of cultural and religious expression." Historically, Native American children often had their hair cut when they were placed in boarding schools, which systematically tried to assimilate them into white society, often through abuse.
The ACLU has demanded that USD 248 rescind the policy barring long hair for boys,
The district has said it will review the dress code policy at December’s school board meeting.