Last week, four-year-old Jabez Oates was turned away from Barbers Hill Independent School District’s kindergarten center until he gets a haircut. (The district’s name, we can only assume, is a coincidence.) Jabez’s hair is long. He’s never had a haircut, and it runs past the middle of his back. His mother, Jessica Oates, says that some of the family’s neighbors assume that he’s transgender or that Oates is “trying to make him a girl.” But Jabez is just a little boy who likes his hair the way it is.
“I was told by the school that Jabez’s hair ‘hindered’ him,” Oates says. “It hindered him from, I dunno, coloring? But of course my first question was, ‘Man, all those pretty little girls with their hair down, did it hinder them, too?'”
A hindrance or not, the school district’s rules are clear about how long a little boy’s hair is allowed to be:
- Boy’s [sic] hair will not extend below the eyebrows, below the ear lobes, or below the top of a t-shirt collar. Corn rows and/or dread locks are permitted if they meet the aforementioned lengths.
- Ponytails or tails are not acceptable on male students.
The rules are clearly stated, but Oates, a 25-year-old single mom, didn’t respond by seeking a fight. Rather, she attempted to negotiate the “ponytails are not acceptable” rule by putting Jabez’s hair in a bun. No dice—the school sent him home again. “The superintendent is not willing to meet me halfway here,” she says.
But Oates says she’s not going to let the school district tell her and her son to do with his hair. “I do not intend on cutting his hair until he tells me he doesn’t like it,” she says. “He’s been confused as to why he can’t go back to school, and I don’t think he really grasps the concept of it. But when I ask him if he wants to cut his hair [to go back], he says no.”
This isn’t the first time long hairstyles have gotten in the way of education in Texas. In 2010, Mesquite ISD made headlines after a family challenged the school and refused to cut their son’s hair. In that case, the school attempted a compromise—the parents in that case could pull their son’s hair back in tight braids to keep it above his ears, the school district offered. The parents declined, citing concern for his scalp if the braids were too tight. (Eventually, they agreed to put his hair in French braids, which the boy seemed to like.) In 2013, a family in the San Antonio suburb of Lytle did cut their son’s hair, but struggled with the decision to do so a second time after it grew out. In 2014, meanwhile, Malachi Wilson—a five-year-old in Seminole—was suspended for his long hair. Wilson is Navajo (on his dad’s side) and Kiowa (on his mom’s), and cutting his hair threatened his ability to express his religious beliefs. He was granted an exemption to the school’s policy.
The issue of schools restricting hair length remains unresolved in Texas. Similar rules have been challenged elsewhere: A policy that required boys to keep their hair short in order to play sports in an Indiana school district was challenged successfully in the Seventh District Court of Appeals in February 2014. The court, in that case, didn’t proscribe any school district in the country from issuing such rules. Rather, it found that schools need to prove that their regulations are “consistent with community norms” and “part of a comprehensive, evenly-enforced grooming code that imposes comparable burdens on both males and females alike,” and applied those situations to opt-in activities like athletics. (It’s worth noting that “comparable burdens” doesn’t necessarily mean “identical burdens”.)
Mounting a legal challenge to such a rule, like the case out of Indiana, can be expensive and time-consuming. Oates works full-time and is seeking a second job, so she can’t afford to take time off to homeschool Jabez.
Still, she is determined to fight this battle. She’s been in touch with the ACLU and says her next step is filing a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. She doesn’t have the resources to hire a lawyer on her own, but Oates says that she’s determined to take this stand after hearing from members of the Barbers Hill community. Most of them, she says, have been “ugly” to her and Jabez.
“As a mother, you do whatever it takes for your child,” Oates explains. “This became even more personal to me after all the bullying from the parents in this school district, to fight this until the bitter end. It became more personal to me when I had a transgender student from the school district say, ‘Thank you, because I’m bullied every day of my life.’ It became more personal to me when I had a woman, a parent in this school district, tell me that transgender boys and girls don’t belong in public ever. They keep making it more and more personal. I’ll sacrifice whatever I need to to have my kid in school, because that’s a right of his, and to stand up for these people who’ve come up to me and said ‘Thank you.'”
She might have a shot. The 2014 ruling from the Seventh Circuit didn’t rule on the constitutionality of all gendered grooming regulations in all schools, so it leaves room for another court—and another potential case, like Oates’s—to cut short the practice of policing the length of little boys’ hair.