Sharyland ISD suspended a 5-year-old boy at Martinez Elementary for having long hair, and now the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas is fighting on his behalf. On Nov. 11, the ACLU filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights citing gender and religious discrimination.
For about a month, the kindergarten student J.R. has been in In-School Suspension because he and his family will not cut his hair. The student is Latino and Native American. He wears long hair to celebrate his cultural heritage and religious beliefs, according to ACLU documents. The family petitioned for religious exemption for J.R., but SISD denied the request. Additionally, ACLU staff attorney Brian Klosterboer explained that Sharyland’s dress code is also discriminatory toward gender because girls can wear their hair long without being suspended.
The attorney said the ACLU of Texas has been focusing on dressing and grooming code issues for the last few years. They surveyed more than 1000 Texas school districts last year and found that 477, including Sharyland, still had rules that required only boys to wear short hair. The ACLU sent a letter to those 477 school districts letting them know this type of policy is unconstitutional. The policy also violates Title IX — a civil rights law that protects people from sex-based discrimination.
The civil rights organization was in the middle of a similar case with Magnolia ISD near Houston when they learned what was happening in Sharyland.
“It’s really inexcusable that they would still be enforcing a policy that multiple federal courts have found to be unconstitutional and to be gender discrimination,” Klosterboer said. “And it’s particularly harmful that they’ve derailed a kindergartener’s year of school, especially without any regard to that student’s Native American heritage and ancestry and religious belief.”
The district could not disclose specific details because it would violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, but they did give a statement.
“Sharyland ISD believes in treating all of its students with dignity and respect. With this being said, we also have policies and procedures in place following our Student-Parent Handbook,” Public Relations Director Nancy Barboza said. “Sharyland ISD remains committed to the safety and emotional well-being of our students and staff.”
When SISD denied religious exemption for J.R., the district requested proof of Indigenous ancestry, which is not a federal law requirement. The attorney said the fact that the district requested the family prove their ancestry is discriminatory and invasive in and of itself.
“Most school districts across the state, you just have to say ‘This is my religious belief; it’s something that I sincerely hold.’ And that’s the end of the story because it’s personal to you. You don’t have to get a letter from your pastor or actually be a member of a church,” Klosterboer said. “The public school district is a government entity. It’s not the government’s role to interrogate that and ask you questions that force you to prove your religious belief.”
The ACLU is waiting to hear back from the school district, but their requests are as follows: allow J.R. to return to the classroom immediately without cutting his hair and change their policy for everyone. Should Sharyland fight the requests, the Office of Civil Rights would investigate, which could take weeks or months. The OCR would be required to look closer at Sharyland’s policies. They would start conducting interviews and collect data on enforcement before negotiating to resolve the matter.
“The Office of Civil Rights has immense power over the federal funding that public school districts receive, but of course, we’re not asking that they actually lose any federal funding. We’re hoping that the school district chooses to resolve this long before it ever gets to that point,” the ACLU attorney said. “There’s no reason to harm and discriminate against their students. And we certainly don’t want to jeopardize the federal funding that they’re receiving that benefits all students. They should simply update and change this outdated and discriminatory policy.”