By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Five-year-old Adriel Arocha has been mistakenly called a pretty little girl.
"No, I'm a boy," Adriel told one stranger. "I have a penis."
Adriel's long, ink-black hair caused the confusion. He's never had a haircut.
His father, Kenney Arocha, is part Native American. He teaches spiritual beliefs to his son that his grandfather and uncles taught to him. Michelle Betenbaugh, Arocha's wife and Adriel's mother, isn't Native American, but she supports raising her son as such.
"I'm an Indian," Adriel says. "How long my hair is, it tells me how long I've been here."
Currently living in Stafford, Arocha plans to move his family to Needville, a town of about 3,000 residents, 40 miles southwest of Houston. The family owns about 50 acres in Needville, and Arocha and Betenbaugh want to turn the land into a sustainable farm, teaching Adriel where food comes from and the importance of conservation.
"We like the idea of trying to minimize our impact," Arocha says.
Adriel's parents want to enroll him at Needville Elementary School. Betenbaugh sent an e-mail to the principal, asking about kindergarten and explaining Adriel's long hair. The principal replied that the district doesn't allow long hair on boys.
On June 9, the family met with Curtis Rhodes, the Needville superintendent. Rhodes asked what religion upheld that Adriel could not cut his hair. The family explained there wasn't a church or doctrine they followed, but they believe that Adriel's hair is sacred.
Arocha said that his belief is to cut his hair after life-changing events, such as mourning the death of someone he loves.
Rhodes told the family Adriel's hair would have to go.
"I've got a lot of friends that are Native-American Indians from Oklahoma, South Dakota, lot of places, some over in Louisiana in the Choctaw Nation, and they all cut their hair," Rhodes says. "We're not going to succumb to everything and just wash away our policies and procedures."
Since the meeting, Arocha and Betenbaugh have been preparing to fight Rhodes and the school district. The family contacted the American Indian Movement, which has offered to speak to district officials. They also contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, which is deciding whether to take the case.
The superintendent has suggested a possible solution would be to put Adriel in a classroom apart from other students with his own teacher. The district has an alternative disciplinary school, but Adriel is too young to be assigned to that.
"In my 20 years in education, I've never had a kindergartner refuse to follow the rules of the school district," Rhodes says. "So this is uncharted territory for us, too."
Arocha and Betenbaugh aren't budging. They plan to take Adriel to kindergarten once the school year starts, even if his teachers send him home every day.
"In my fantasy world, I would have went in, pled my case, let them meet my son, and the community I've chosen to live in would have said, 'Hey, I want to be progressive.' Unfortunately, that isn't what happened," Arocha says. "We had one person tell us it would be easier to sell the property and move. They didn't say it maliciously. They just said it would be easier on ourselves and our son if we moved to a more tolerant environment."
Needville promotes itself as the town "where thousands live the way millions wish they could." The slogan is painted on signs around town and posted on the city's Chamber of Commerce Web site.
The sprawl from Houston to Sugar Land to Richmond hasn't touched the community. A couple feed supply stores and a family-owned hardware store remain downtown. Needville celebrates its annual Harvest Festival in October.
The population has grown some in recent years, but Rhodes believes it's the town's old-fashioned values that keep Needville appealing.
"We have a lot of people tell us all the time that they move here strictly for the school system. This is just from the opposite side. [Arocha and Betenbaugh] want to move in, yet they want to change this part to fit how they practice or what they believe in," Rhodes says. "A school district is a reflection of the community. We've consistently been very conservatively dressed, very conservatively disciplined. It's no secret what our policy is: You'll cut your hair to the right point. You'll tuck in your shirt. You'll have a belt."
He continues, "How can it be outdated? How many doctors, professionals, lawyers, look at your military branches, look at bankers, how many of them have long hair? How many have beards? How many have body piercings all over their face?"
Rhodes graduated from Needville High School in 1983, when his father was superintendent in the neighboring town of Damon. His grandfather had been a superintendent as well.
"I've never had a hair past my ears," Rhodes says. "I'm pretty much a rule follower. I'm not out to, just because there's a rule I got to try to break it. I wasn't raised that way, I wasn't genetically put together that way. If they say do this, I'm going to do it."
When Rhodes married, he married a woman born and raised in Needville. The couple left the town when they were younger, but returned to raise their kids.