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Texas school refuses Native American student because of his ponytail

A Texas public school refused entry to a kindergartner last week because his hair violated their district’s strict policy. The boy is a Native American and his parents say his long hair is part of his religious beliefs. The school ultimately let the child attend, but only after requiring written proof of his heritage. But what if they had no written proof, just the parent’s word on what their spiritual beliefs would be? Being Native American proves genealogy but not necessarily faith. Shouldn’t a parent’s word be enough when requesting a religious exemption?

F.J. Young Elementary School in Seminole, Texas, has a fairly strict and very specific dress code policy when it comes to boys’ hair. They require it be “cut neatly and often.” The policy also states that “When combed straight forward, the hair shall be above the eyebrows and may not extend below the bottom of the collar… and when combed over the ear, may cover no more than the top half of the ear.” It was the second portion of the rule that caused problems for April Wilson and her 5-year-old son Malachi. As a Navajo male, Malachi’s hair is long — their culture doesn’t cut their hair except for in specific instances. “Our hair is sacred to us,” Wilson informed a Texas news station, “it makes up part of who we are.”

Wilson thought she had addressed this issue back in June when registering her son for school. She checked the box for “Native American” and asked when turning the form in if there was anything specific she should know. She was told no. It wasn’t until a very excited Malachi arrived for his first day of school that she was informed his hair was too long.

Wilson was able to provide certified proof of Malachi’s Native American heritage so the school district has allowed Malachi an exemption to the rule, but what if that proof wasn’t available? What if Wilson and her husband had decided prior to Malachi’s birth to adopt the culture and religion of the Navajo, and weren’t blood descendants of the tribe? Would their family’s beliefs be ignored and the child refused entry to the school?

Malachi playing frisbee |

Photo credit: CBS19

Putting the outdated hair standards of the dress code policy aside, no one should ever have to provide documentation of their faith for school purposes beyond a parent’s word. When requesting religious exemptions a simple declaration of faith should suffice. Just because you have documentation doesn’t always mean you believe, and vice versa.

The true irony of the situation is F. J. Young Elementary School is part of the Seminole Independent School District, a district which uses Native American images and material heavily on their webpages, with their mascots and in all of the schools. The sign you see as you walk up to the gym states proudly “Welcome to the Tribe.” If the district is going to exploit Native American culture for their benefit, perhaps they should make an effort to be a little more knowledgeable and accepting of it.

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