After Kansas school district forces Native American boy to cut his hair, ACLU sends warning

A Girard school district policy banning long hair for boys is harmful and unlawful, ACLU letter says

By: - November 17, 2023 2:39 pm
The ACLU of Kansas on Friday sent a letter to Girard school officials warning them that their sex-based hair policy is unlawful. School officials forced an 8-year-old Native American boy to cut his hair in conflict with his religious practices.

The ACLU of Kansas on Friday sent a letter to Girard school officials warning them that their sex-based hair policy is unlawful. School officials forced an 8-year-old Native American boy to cut his hair in conflict with his religious practices. (Kansas Reflector illustration)

TOPEKA — 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.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas warned the district in a letter Friday that the school policy is both a violation of religious freedom and one that promotes “rigid gender norms.”

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

R.V. Haderlein Elementary has a dress code policy mandating that boys wear their hair short, with “hair not to touch the collar of a crew neck t-shirt … or extend below the earlobes.” Female students aren’t subjected to the same mandate.

The 8-year-old boy, a member of the Wyandotte Nation, started growing his hair out after he attended the Nation’s annual gathering and saw the cultural tradition of men wearing their hair long. A common Wyandotte Nation spiritual and religious practice is for men to grow their hair out, only cutting it when in mourning.

In August, school officials warned the 8-year-old’s family that his hair needed to be cut to comply with the dress code, according to the ACLU letter. For his protection, the family has chosen not to be identified publicly.

In early September, his mother asked for an exemption to the policy because of his heritage and religious practices but was told this wasn’t allowed. On Friday, Sept. 22, Joni Benso, assistant principal at the school, sent an email to his mother. Benso said she had noted “concerns about the policy,” but told the mother she needed to cut his hair over the weekend or he would be sent home, according to the ACLU’s letter. 

After several attempts to contact the district’s superintendent, the child’s mother cut his hair that weekend under the belief he would be sent home from school every day and potentially suspended, according to the ACLU’s account of events. 

The superintendent, Todd Ferguson, said he could not comment on the case. Ferguson said the district would review the dress code policy during a December board meeting.

“Nothing matters more than creating a safe, respectful and caring school for every student,” Ferguson said. “I am unable to comment on individual students, families or employees, due to confidentiality laws. I can share that the USD 248 Board of Education is planning to review and consider updates to the dress code policy when they meet.”

The ACLU is now urging the school to accommodate the child and allow for an exemption to the policy, arguing the policy 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 advise the school to rescind the policy altogether 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,” the ACLU letter reads.

This story has been updated with a statement from the district. 

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Rachel Mipro
Rachel Mipro

A graduate of Louisiana State University, Rachel Mipro has covered state government in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. She and her fellow team of journalists were 2022 Goldsmith Prize Semi-Finalists for their work featuring the rise of the KKK in northern Louisiana, following racially-motivated shootings in 1960. With her move to the Midwest, Rachel is now turning her focus toward issues within Kansas public policies.