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Kansas school district changes hair policy after Native American boy cut his hair to avoid punishment

By Chandelis Duster, CNN

(CNN) — A school district in Kansas has changed its hair policy after the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said an 8-year-old Native American boy was forced to cut his hair to comply with his elementary school’s dress code.

On Thursday, the Girard Unified School District (USD) Board of Education voted to remove the district’s dress code policy requirements for boys hair, Girard USD Superintendent Todd Ferguson told CNN in a statement.

The school board said the change to the district’s student handbook and hair policy was “effective immediately,” according to an email that the Board sent to Girard school district parents and was obtained by CNN.

The previous hair policy for male students stated, “Hair is not to touch the collar of a crew neck t-shirt, cover the eyebrows, or extend below the earlobes. Ponytails, rat tails, or any other style that would circumvent the policy are not permitted.”

In November, the ACLU demanded that the district and R.V. Haderlein Elementary school officials rescind the hair policy and “immediately grant [the redacted student’s name] an accommodation allowing him to wear his hair below his shoulders in accordance with his cultural and religious traditions,” CNN previously reported.

According to a letter the ACLU sent to the district, the boy is a member of the Wyandotte Nation, a federally recognized Native American Tribe based in Wyandotte, Oklahoma. The ACLU did not release the name of the child or his mother.

The boy had been told to cut his hair in August and the following month his mother asked for an exemption because of his Native American heritage and spiritual beliefs, the ACLU wrote in the letter. Many men in the Wyandotte Nation only cut their hair when mourning the loss of a loved one, it said.

The school’s assistant principal responded in an email to the boy’s mother saying the boy’s hair had to be cut, “or he will be sent home,” the ACLU said in its letter.

The mother decided to cut the boy’s hair, according to the ACLU, out of fear that her son would be reprimanded and to ensure he would be able to go to school. But her decision “caused him distress,” the ACLU said.

On Monday, the ACLU of Kansas’ legal team commended the school board for removing the policy and “for using this first opportunity to ensure our eight-year-old client’s experience will not be repeated.”

“Sex-based appearance codes reflect and reinforce harmful sex stereotypes, disproportionately discriminate against students of color — in particular by imposing cultural and religious harm — and have nothing to do with a student’s ability to learn,” the organization said in a statement to CNN.

“Present-day policies that restrict Native American boys from wearing long hair must be understood in the historical context of separating Indigenous children from their families and tribes and denying them their rights of cultural and religious expression. Corrective action such as this is part of how we move forward from that painful legacy.”

CNN has reached out to the Wyandotte Nation for comment.

The tribe previously told CNN the school and school district should “take a close look at its rule governing boys’ hair length in light of the unique history involving Native American children.

“For centuries, tribal people have faced a siege of cultural oppression. 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,” the tribe said.

“This is a culturally sensitive issue that brings to light historical traumas for many tribal nations, beyond our own.”

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