In September, officials at Haderlein Elementary School in Kansas emailed the child’s mother to notify her about her son’s hair. It noted that the boy would be suspended if he didn’t comply with the policy stipulating that boys’ hair can’t “touch the collar of a crew neck T-shirt, cover the eyebrows or extend below the earlobes.”
The boy’s mother requested an exemption, citing her son’s heritage and spiritual beliefs, but it was denied. After school officials gave her another warning, she did not receive any answers to her calls, according to the ACLU. The boy ended up cutting his hair, which “caused him distress.”
“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,” Jennesa Calvo-Friedman, an ACLU staff attorney, told The Washington Post. “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.”
The boy started growing out his hair after being inspired to follow in the footsteps of his elders during an annual event, the Gathering of the Little Turtles, over the summer. The 8-year-old and his mother are part of the Wyandotte Nation, which is federally recognized. For many Native American men, wearing long hair is an expression of spiritual identity and a celebration of indigenous ancestry. Wyandotte men will cut their hair only to mourn the loss of a loved one.
The ACLU noted that the school’s policy may “disproportionately impact Native American students.” It also cited that it sends the message that boys “cannot be feminine in any way, and this message harms all students by promoting rigid views of gender norms and roles.”
For the Wyandotte Nation, this is a direct reminder of the oppression against Native American people throughout history.
“For centuries, tribal people have faced a siege of cultural oppression,” the tribe told CNN. “This oppression has taken many forms including, but not limited to, the forced cutting of Native American men and boys’ hair in order to impose conformity with dominant white culture and to stifle long-held religious and traditional Native American practices and beliefs.”
“This is a culturally sensitive issue that brings to light historical traumas for many tribal nations beyond our own,” it added. “We hope that a respectful, culturally informed discourse between the family and the school representatives will ultimately lead to a workable resolution.”
The U.S. government sent indigenous children to boarding schools to assimilate them and make them shed their cultural heritage and identity until the mid-20th century. Today, hundreds of deaths have been reported at these institutions.
The ACLU requested an exemption from school policy for the student and asked to receive a response from district officials by Dec. 1. Todd Ferguson, Girard Unified School District 248’s superintendent, 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,” he said.