This article originally ran the Dec. 24, 2021 issue of the Progress Times.
Irma Gomez, the mother of 8-year-old Usiel, came forward to speak on her son’s experience with Sharyland ISD’s “discriminatory” dress code after learning another boy in the district went through a similar experience as her son around the same time.
Earlier this school year, SISD suspended 5-year-old J.R. from Martinez Elementary for having long hair and denied his family’s request for religious exemption. The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas learned about the issue and filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, citing gender and religious discrimination. When Gomez read about J.R.’s suspension, she said she wanted people to hear her son’s story too, with the hope that it could help other families dealing with a similar issue.
Gomez and her family moved to Sharyland from Amarillo three years ago. But up until this school year, she and her husband had Usiel enrolled at Palmer Elementary in Pharr. But this year, Gomez enrolled her son at the nearby Bentsen Elementary because it is closer to home.
It wasn’t until about three weeks into the 2021-2022 school that problems regarding the third grader’s hair began.
“The vice principal reached out as I was picking him up from school and told me he could not have long hair,” Gomez said. “I’ve never had trouble with his hair when he went to other schools. So when they told me that, I was not OK. So I reached out to them and talked to them. They told me it was going to be a process. I had to put in an appeal, or he was going to have to sit in [In-School Suspension].”
Usiel’s parents made three appeals to Sharyland ISD, citing religious exemption. For each appeal meeting, the parents had 10 minutes to speak to the school board to present their case, and each time the board denied their request.
“The third time, I realized that it was kind of like a joke. I felt like I was laughed at because these were the same people who made this policy that I was speaking to. I didn’t have a lawyer with me. So I was like, ‘This was pointless,’” the mother said. “I felt like they were just trying to see how far I would go or if I would even be able to get a lawyer. But I felt the three times I walked out of there crying, devastated because they wouldn’t say anything. I would ask them a question, and then after they would stop the recording, they would be like, ‘This is only your time to talk, we can’t talk.’ So, I never had any questions I could ask them or anything.”
Like the case with 5-year-old J.R., Sharyland ISD asked Usiel’s parents to supply documentation to grant religious exemption. But according to the ACLU of Texas attorney Brian Klosterboer, a school district is not allowed to ask for this kind of documentation.
“It’s very clearly established case law in Texas that school districts have to respect people’s religious beliefs and culture and heritage. And that’s nowhere to be seen in the district’s policy itself,” Klosterboer said. “The federal courts have been very clear…no one is forced to prove their beliefs and ancestry or heritage. And it’s actually discriminatory and invasive to force people to prove their heritage, ancestry and beliefs.”
Gomez said she grew tired of fighting with the district, even after speaking to a lawyer who did not want to take on the case. She then withdrew Usiel from Sharyland ISD and enrolled him at Palmer Elementary again.
“I’m not a fighter, you know. I don’t let people ruin my day, but it was different with this case. It was really bothering me,” the mother said. “It affected our whole family, and that’s why I would like for people to hear our story and not be afraid. If something can be done, like that policy taken off, that would be great because it does affect kids. Maybe not now, but in the long run. He felt bullied; my son felt bullied.”
Progress Times reached out to Sharyland ISD to verify the events Gomez described and asked if they would like to comment on the matter. Public Relations Director Nancy Barboza responded with the following statement:
“Sharyland ISD believes in treating all of its students with dignity and respect. Given that this situation involves a student and due to [Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act] regulations, additional details cannot be disclosed at this time. Sharyland ISD remains committed to the education, safety and emotional well-being of all of our students and staff.”