Friday, May 08, 2009

NAT: Needville ISD vs. Hair

just now getting this word . . .

Judge Rules Needville ISD Violated Native American Boy’s Constitutional Rights
January 22nd, 2009 | by Bob Dunn | Published in FortBendNow |

In a strong rebuke of their actions, a federal judge ruled Wednesday that Needville Independent School District officials violated the constitutional rights of a kindergarten student and his parents, by not allowing the boy to wear his hair according to his Native American religious beliefs.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison ruled that Needville ISD is permanently barred from forcing 5-year-old Adriel Arocha to comply with terms of a dress-code exemption policy the district created specifically for the boy.

That policy “violates not only Adriel Arocha’s free exercise rights, but also his rights to free expression and his parents’ due process rights,” Judge Ellison said in court documents released Wednesday.

The ruling came through a federal suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the boy and his parents, Kenney Arocha and Michelle Betenbaugh. The family sought an injunction to prevent school officials “from disciplining Adriel Arocha in any way that violates his rights to free exercise of religion or free expression,” which in Adriel Arocha’s case means being allowed to attend school with his hair kept in two long braids, worn outside of his clothing.

Adriel’s parents began communicating with Needville ISD officials last year, after they made plans to move from Stafford to Needville. Betenbaugh informed officials about her son’s American Indian background, and belief that, with the exception of events such as mourning the death of a close relative, his hair should be worn long.

But in a series of conversations and meetings with school officials, they were told the boy would have to live by Needville Elementary School’s dress code - which includes specific rules governing hair length and style.

“Needville is known for the structure and discipline that we have, and we take pride in that, too. We’re going to uphold our standards… We’re not really open to letting 5-year-olds make their own rules.” Needville ISD Superintendent Curtis Rhodes said at the time.

A lengthy appeals process ensued throughout the summer, in which Adriel’s parents attempted to convince district officials to grant their son a religious exemption from a policy that would have required him to cut his hair short.

Then at an Aug. 20 appeal hearing before the Needville ISD Board of Trustees, Rhodes announced his recommendation that either the board deny the boy an exemption or require him to “wear his hair in a tightly woven single braid down his back with the hair behind his ears, out of his eyes and the braid tucked into the collar of his shirt.”

The board voted to adopt an exemption for Adriel under the terms recommended by Rhodes, who did not return a phone call for comment on Wednesday’s ruling.

On the first day of school, the Needville Elementary School principal sent a letter home with Adriel acknowledging that he would not be required to cut his hair, because of his religious beliefs.

But Adriel had come to school with his hair in two braids, worn outside his shirt, instead of one braid tucked into his clothes as the district had demanded via its new exemption policy.

On Sept. 3, the principal began placing the boy in in-school suspension, spending his days alone with a retired teacher who had been supervising him.

On Oct. 3, Judge Ellison signed a preliminary injunction ordering Needville ISD to allow Adriel to return to class wearing his hair as he chooses.

“Since his return to his regular class, Adriel Arocha has not interfered with the teacher’s ability to teach,” the judge said in Wednesday’s ruling for a permanent injunction against the district. “His hair sometimes falls in his eyes and his teacher has to ell him to tuck it behind his ear. The teacher occasionally has to make the same suggestion to girls wearing pigtails.”

The dispute between Adriel’s parents and Rhodes and other district officials stemmed in part from the superintendent’s apparent belief that Kenney Arocha’s decision to wear his hair long for more than a decade amounted to “personal choice” rather than religious conviction, Judge Eillison wrote, noting that Rhodes had testified the family was unable to provide him “with written evidence of their beliefs, a religion that could be researched or a tribal affiliation.”

(Kenney Arocha has stated that relatives told him he is part American Indian, but is not a formal member of a tribe.)

But Ellison cited a Supreme Court ruling in an Indiana case that stated “Courts should not undertake to dissect religious beliefs because the believer admits that he is ’struggling’ with his position or because his beliefs are not articulated with the clarity and precision that a more sophisticated person might employ.”

In attaching religious significance to wearing his hair long, Kenney Arocha “does not have to prove that all other Lipan Apaches have beliefs that are identical to his own,” the judge ruled. “Moreover, he is not required to prove his belief by pointing to a ‘tenet or dogma’ of any particular Indian tribe or organization.

“Plaintiff Arocha is only required to show that he himself has these ‘deeply held religious beliefs,’ which he has done,” Judge Ellison said in the ruling. “He describes his hair as ‘an outward extension of who we are and where we come from, our ancestry and where we’re going in life.’ He taught Adriel Arocha that his hair demonstrates ‘how long he has been here’ and ‘is an extension of who (Adriel) is.’”

The judge ruled that forcing Adriel to wear a 13-inch braid inside his shirt would not only be “physically burdensome” for the next 11 years of his school life, the policy would act to “influence him to cut his hair in violation of his religious beliefs.

“In the alternative, it forces him to choose between the generally available benefit of attending Needville public schools, or, on the other hand, following his religious beliefs.

“The policy’s effects go far behond denying him some benefit that is not otherwise generally available or preventing him from acting in a way that is not otherwise allowed,” Judge Ellison wrote in the ruling. “Female children attending NISD are allowed to wear their long hair exposed and in two braids, for purely secular reasons. Even though the school board found it necessary to grant Adrial Arocha a religious exemption, it did not extend him this same freedom to wear his long hair in a comfortable, practical matter.”

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