Last week, Malachi Wilson made headlines when the five-year-old kindergarten was sent home from the F.J. Young Elementary School in the west Texas town of Seminole because his hair was too long. There are a few issues at work there that are worth parsing out, but the big one was that Wilson is Navajo (on his father’s side) and Kiowa (on his mother’s), and cutting his hair would have violated their religious beliefs.
Wilson’s parents sought an exception to the school’s policy, which reads that:
Boys’ hair shall be cut neatly and often enough to ensure good grooming. When combed straight forward, the
hair shall be above the eyebrows and may not extend below the bottom of the collar of a sport or dress shirt or
the top of a t-shirt, and, when combed over the ear, may cover no more than the top half of the ear.
The school granted the exception, provided that Wilson’s parents could provide documentation proving that he was really Navajo, and not just one of those longhaired five-year-olds who keep their hair flowing to, er, demonstrate their love for Metallica. Which is a ridiculous sentence to type, but this is a ridiculous story, about a ridiculous rule: Why does a public school feel the need to police the hair-length of the little boys who are in their charge?
That’s a question worth asking under any circumstance, but it’s especially valid when talking about Native American children, for whom there is a long tradition of schools stripping away traditions—including long hair. The National Relief Charities blog described the forced-haircuts that Native children were subject to in U.S.-run boarding schools in a post about long hair in 2012:
[T]he real distinction as to why the question is asked, even though both Natives and non-Natives wear their hair long, is the history of the United States. Think about “Kill the Indian, Save the man.” How many countless Natives have had their culture away taken by the US government’s boarding school system? Forced haircuts were a part of an intentional process of stripping away culture. Freedom allowed non-Natives to wear their hair long, but took it away from the Native Americans. Today, Indians are free to wear their hair however they want, but how do the scars from the past prevent Indian people from wearing their hair long today?
For people who lost generations’ worth of traditions, sentences like “Today, Indians are free to wear their hair however they want” necessarily come with caveats like “but how do the scars from the past prevent Indian people from wearing their hair long today?” The ability to do something is worth less than it might be if the traditions were eradicated. But even with that caveat, turning a Navajo child away because of his hair-length does more than just invoke scars when it recalls some very uncomfortable parts of the not-too-distant past.
The Seminole school district presumably didn’t put the rule in place in order to “kill the Indian, save the man,” as evinced by the fact that they granted Wilson an exemption. But even if the rule is in place to create an orderly environment where the Metallica fans among the older male students in the district are unable to headbang their way through the halls, it’s hard to find a strong justification for the existence of a rule that requires boys to be subject to restrictions on their haircuts that girls don’t face.
In fact, that’s something that the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (which covers Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin) determined earlier this year, when it found a school’s rules requiring boys to have short hair in order to play sports to be unconstitutional.
“This case is not just about a haircut as the Greensburg School Corporation claims,” the lawyer for the parents had argued to the appeals court in a brief. “This case is about an infringement on a fundamental constitutional right…. This is a case about a kid who was forced to choose between the game he loves and not feeling like himself if he cut his hair.”
On Monday, the appeals panel said that while hair length isn’t a fundamental right, the haircut policy “impermissibly discriminates based on sex.”
“What we have before us is a policy that draws an explicit distinction between male and female athletes and imposes a burden on male athletes alone,” Judge Ilana D. Rovner wrote for the majority.
The judge continued, “Girls playing interscholastic basketball have the same need as boys do to keep their hair out of their eyes, to subordinate individuality to team unity, and to project a positive image. Why, then, must only members of the boys team wear their hair short?”
Presumably the aspects of the ruling about Greensburg’s policy “impermissably discriminat[ing] based on sex” is a precedent that the Wilson family—or anyone else seeking a way to challenge the school’s rule—could use in court.
The Wilson family hasn’t said whether or not they’re planning to sue, and given the fact that the school district allowed Malachi to return the next day after granting the exemption, they’d certainly be justified in deciding that the situation was resolved to their satisfaction. But it’s unfortunate that the school would require a statement of religious belief to grant an exemption for a cultural decision that’s already been found unconstitutional in the circuit courts, and that comes up in schools around the country under slightly different circumstances, not all of which involve religion.