The American Civil Liberties Union is demanding that a Kansas elementary school repeal a policy it says forbids boys from wearing long hair after an 8-year-old Native American student was allegedly forced to cut his hair or be sent home.
In a letter sent Friday to R.V. Haderlein Elementary School in Girard, Kansas, the ACLU said that the boy in question, a member of the Wyandotte Nation, grew his hair out last summer after attending his nation’s Gathering of the Little Turtles, where he saw other Native men wearing their hair long.
This allegedly violated Haderlein’s “Boy’s Hair Length” policy — a policy that does not apply to girls at the school.
As a result, the ACLU says, the boy was told in August he needed to cut his hair or be sent home until he does.
Haderlein Elementary School in Girard, Kan. Google Maps According to the letter, his mother visited the school in early September to request an exemption, even offering to show documentation proving the child’s Native heritage.
She was informed there were no exemptions, the ACLU says, and after numerous failed attempts to contact the superintendent, she made the decision to have her child’s hair cut so he could keep attending school.
“Because he made the decision to wear his hair long in accordance with his Native American spiritual and cultural tradition,” the letter states, “cutting his hair in this manner caused him distress.”
The ACLU maintains that this policy as applied to the child violates state and federal law, and constitutes religious as well as sex-based discrimination.
“Requiring him to cut his hair to attend school imposes a substantial burden on his faith practice because, in and of itself, it violates his religious beliefs,” the letter states.
It also promotes “rigid views of gender norms and roles,” and is unlawful because “schools may not impose different requirements on students based on their sex without an exceedingly persuasive justification.”
The policy is particularly troubling, the letter says, given the historical context of Indian boarding schools in this country, which stripped Native American children of their identities by, among other abuses, cutting their hair.
The letter urges the school district to rescind the hair-length policy in its entirety, or 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 honor this request.
The school could not immediately be reached for comment.
Mike Gagliardi is a researcher with the NBC News Network Desk.