A supposed dress code exemption - granted by Needville school officials to allow a 5-year-old boy to wear his hair according to his religious beliefs - instead has become a "degrading and embarrassing" punishment, the American Civil Liberties Union says.
The ACLU, on behalf of kindergarten student Adriel Arocha and his parents, makes that contention in a suit it filed against the Needville Independent School District in U.S. District Court in Houston on Wednesday.
Since the sixth day of the school year, Needville Elementary School officials have placed Adriel in in-school suspension for coming to school with his hair tied in two braids worn outside his shirt.
"Upon arriving at his classroom every morning, Adriel is escorted away from his classmates and into another room where he sits with his ISS teacher for the rest of the school day," the suit states.
"Adriel endures this segregation for over seven hours every day with no opportunity to engage in group learning or social play with other children during class or on the playground," the suit states, adding that the Texas Education Code says ISS can extend for no longer than three days.
The boy's parents, Kenney Arocha and Michelle Betenbaugh, are seeking a temporary restraining order and an injunction to prevent school officials "from disciplining Adriel Arocha in any way that violates his rights to free exercise of religion or free expression," which in Adriel Arocha's case means being allowed to attend school with his hair kept in two long braids, worn outside of his clothing.
Adriel's parents began communicating with Needville ISD officials last year, after they made plans to move from Stafford to Needville. Betenbaugh informed officials about her son's American Indian background, and belief that, with the exception of events such as mourning the death of a close relative, his hair should be worn long.
But in a series of conversations and meetings with school officials, they were told the boy would have to live by Needville Elementary School's dress code - which includes specific rules governing hair length and style.
Needville ISD Superintendent Curtis Rhodes implied earlier this summer that it was disingenuous of Adriel's parents to seek a religious exemption from the district dress code because his American Indian father's beliefs didn't appear to be formalized.
"If they want to say it's a freedom of religion issue - what religion are you?" Rhodes said at the time
. "If you're a Muslim and you have those religious tenets, that's a known... But you have to have a sincerely held religious belief."
Rhodes was out of the office on Friday and couldn't be reached for comment.
A lengthy appeals process ensued throughout the summer, in which Adriel's parents attempted to convince district officials to grant their son a religious exemption from a policy that would have required him to cut his hair short.
Then at an Aug. 20 appeal hearing before the Needville ISD Board of Trustees, Rhodes announced his recommendation that either the board deny the boy an exemption or require him to "wear his hair in a tightly woven single braid down his back with the hair behind his ears, out of his eyes and the braid tucked into the collar of his shirt."
The board voted to adopt an exemption for Adriel under the terms Rhodes had recommended.
The suit states this new "punitive policy places a substantial burden on Adriel's free exercise of his religious beliefs concerning hair as well as his right to express his American Indian religion, heritage and identity.
"Forcing a 5-year-old child to stuff a 13-inch-long braid of thick, wavy hair down his shirt and ensure that all of his hair stays 'tightly woven' and under his shirt during a typical kindergartner's day of activities is a punishment," the suit adds. "It is degrading and embarrassing; extremely uncomfortable especially in the Houston area's very hot climate...It serves no purpose other than to make Adriel ashamed or resentful of his American Indian religion, heritage and identity."
One the first day of school, the Needville Elementary School principal sent a letter home with Adriel acknowledging that he would not be required to cut his hair, because of his religious beliefs, the suit said.
But Adriel had come to school with his hair in two braids, worn outside his shirt, instead of one braid tucked into his clothes.
On Sept. 3, the principal began placing the boy in in-school suspension, spending his days alone with a retired teacher who has been supervising him.
"This social and educational isolation is particularly detrimental to the development of a five-year-old child," the suit states. "When Ms. Betenbaugh talks to Adriel about school while tucking him in each night, he often cries and tells her he is sad to be separated from his classmates."
The lawsuit called Needville ISD's actions "particularly degrading in light of the underlying history of forced assimilation and persecution American Indians faced for centuries in this country. The education system was used as a key tool in the government's efforts to force American Indians to abandon their culture and traditions.."
In the suit, Adriel and his parents say that the district is calling its decision about the boy's hair and "exemption" in "a transparent attempt to avoid this suit and to back out of the previous assurances against discipline on which" the boy's parents relied.
The suit states that the district's actions violates Adriel's First Amendment rights to free expression under the U.S. Constitution; the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act; and his right to due process under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.
"Adriel Arocha¢s parents have raised him to practice and be proud of his religion and culture as an American Indian, which includes wearing his uncut hair in two long braids," ACLU of Texas Legal Director Lisa Graybill said in a statement. "NISD recognized that Adriel¢s religious beliefs exempt him from the dress code requirement that boys have short hair, but the alternate policy they adopted for him is unlawful."