A school district overseeing Mont Belvieu, Texas — a city of roughly 5,500 people located 34 miles east of Houston — has banned a four-year-old Native American boy from attending pre-kindergarten until he cuts his hair. The district’s dress code forbids boys from having long hair, even though the boy’s mother says that school faculty assured her that his long hair would be permitted, based on her Native American heritage.
The mother, Jessica Oates, said that her family is Cocopah Indian, a Native American tribe that has existed along the Colorado River in southwestern states for centuries. Oates has documentation proving her family’s Cocopah ancestry and says that the Cocopah consider long hair a signal of strength, which is why her son, Jabez (pictured above), has long hair.
Oates says that when she first enrolled her son, she was told that his hair would be “no big deal” as long as she provided documentation of her Cocopah ancestry. However, after attending school with his hair down and in a bun with a single black hair tie, the school principal contacted her and said he could no longer wear long hair.
The Barbers Hill Independent School District’s dress code policy states that boy’s hair “shall not extend below the eyebrows, below the ear lobes, or below the top of a t-shirt collar.” It also says, “Boys are not permitted to wear hair accessories deemed inappropriate.”
The school district also released a statement which read:
“Parents have a right to seek an appropriate educational setting for their child, just as Ms. Oates has the right to place her child in a district that reflects her personal expectations for standards of appearance. There are procedures in place for addressing concerns over policy if it is Ms. Oates’ desire to have her son educated in Barbers Hill ISD. But we would and should justifiably be criticized if our district lessened its expectations or longstanding policies simply to appease.”
While Oates is currently seeking other daycare and pre-school options — she’s a single mother — she says that she has no intention of cutting her son’s hair and will fight the policy to ensure that her son can access the same education as everyone else without forsaking his cultural heritage.
Oates could potentially have legal grounds to contest the district’s policy, as the American Civil Liberties Union’s web page on school dress codes says “If you are a boy and you need to have long hair for religious reasons—please contact us.” The Anti-Defamation League also says that the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment requires schools to allow variations to its dress code as long as it does not significantly interfere with the government’s aims.