A Native American Family Fights Against Hair Length Rules

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.

"If you want to think we're backwards...no one is asking you to move to Needville and have these opinions invoked on you," Rhodes says. "All the kids I graduated with — there's a bunch of us back in Needville — we never thought we'd come back. Backwards isn't all that bad when you become the parent."

Arocha's father and mother didn't embrace their Native American heritage. By Arocha's calculations, his family descends from a southwestern Apache tribe that split for Mexico in the 1880s, in fear of being herded onto a reservation. His ancestors are mixed Spanish-Apache, and a DNA profile has confirmed this.

Arocha's family presented itself as Mexican to blend in with families in Rosenberg, where Arocha was raised.

But he remembers a grandfather and uncles who wore long hair and spoke of Apache culture. Arocha's hair grew long when he was a child. The day before kindergarten started, however, Arocha's mother took him to the barber for a buzz cut.

"I remember screaming, because I didn't understand. Then I went home, and my mom said I could go to school," Arocha says. "I don't fault her for it. It was easier for her; it was what was expected to do."

Arocha hasn't cut his hair since he met Betenbaugh about ten years ago. Today he owns a clothing company in which he designs corsets and other pieces of exotic clothing. Betenbaugh is his seamstress. They sell many of their designs to shops in the Montrose area.

A few years ago, Arocha had several surgeries to correct malformations in his brain, and he pleaded with the doctors not to shave his head. The doctors eventually agreed.

"When we found out Michelle was pregnant, it lit a fire under me," Arocha says. "I had tried assimilating, but it never quite worked."

"To some, long hair may seem to be a trivial issue," writes Timothy Zahniser in the American Indian Law Review. "What is not trivial is a study of Big Sandy...which provides an excellent academic study of constitutional personal liberty."

Zahniser's article covers a court case from about 15 years ago, when a group of students from the Alabama and Coushatta Indian tribes sued the Big Sandy Independent School District in Polk County.

The case started when a tenth grader was instructed by the principal at Big Sandy High School to cut his hair. The student refused and was sent to in-school detention. Other male students were later placed in detention for the same reason.

Parents of the students approved of the long hair, citing religious beliefs, though most of the parents openly practiced ­Christianity.

The judge in the Big Sandy case ruled that "the wearing of long hair for religious reasons is protected, even though it is not a fundamental tenet of Native American religion."

"To [Native American] students, the wearing of long hair can have a religious significance and can be regarded as representative of pride in their culture and traditions. Parents have a right to encourage and supervise that pride," Zahniser writes. "The right of Native American students in public schools to wear long hair should not be infringed."

The Needville school district had a taste of lawsuit over its policies in 2004. In that case, a middle-school girl wore a T-shirt displaying the phrase, "Somebody went to HOOVER DAM, and all I got was this DAM shirt."

The first day the girl wore the shirt, the principal told her to change or go home. She had an extra shirt and changed.

But the girl wore the shirt for six consecutive days. The principal continued to tell the girl to change, and her parents took her home each day.

"We'll let her come to school as long as she can wear her T-shirt," J.R. Mercer, the girl's father, told the Fort Bend Herald-Coaster.

The family sued for $10,000 for each day the girl missed school, and wanted the school board to stop opening its meetings with prayer. The suit was eventually ­dismissed.

Rhodes wasn't superintendent during the T-shirt lawsuit, and he doesn't see any parallels between that case and Arocha's ­argument.

"As we look at it, we have an individual from Stafford who is unhappy, or doesn't agree with my decision that if their child were to come here, we would have him cut his hair. I haven't seen where religion comes into this yet," Rhodes says. "We want to be fair and nondiscriminatory, yet it has to have standardization to it. Otherwise, I'm going to come in and say, 'Well, my child doesn't believe in listening to teachers.' How bizarre can you get? You've got to have rules and order anywhere you go and anything you do."

After Rhodes ruled that Adriel would have to cut his hair, he also said the family could appeal his decision. Rhodes sent the family appeal forms, and Arocha and Betenbaugh will present a case to the Needville school board at a meeting on July 16.

"[The school board is] pretty solid, and they're proud of the Needville heritage we have here," Rhodes says. "There's a lot of school districts that have lost their discipline and all their beliefs. Needville's pretty tight about that, they're pretty tight about the traditions they have."

Arocha and Betenbaugh expect the school board to uphold the ruling, and the next step is a lawsuit. If the American Indian Movement or the ACLU doesn't provide lawyers, Betenbaugh says the family will hire its own.

"I don't want this to go to trial; I don't want them to have to waste their money to defend this," Arocha says. "They had an individual burn down part of their high school last year. I would much rather them spend their money fixing the high school than having to hire a lawyer to defend something that's constitutionally protected."

When the family started dealing with the school disrict, Betenbaugh launched a blog, thestitchwitch.wordpress.com. Rhodes says the Web site has passed through Needville like hot fire.

"There's been some statements thrown by the family about bashing Needville," he says. "I've heard about it at the feed store and downtown at the restaurants. Needville is going to stand tight and unified. We're still going to be Needville."

Arocha says that when this started, he explained the problem to Adriel. And he believes that his son understands.

"I don't want to cut my hair, so we're having an argument," Adriel says. "I want to go to school. I don't know how to read. I've never gone to daycare, so I really want to go."

Arocha and Betenbaugh bought the land in Needville in October. Neither expected such a problem, but now that one exists, Arocha believes the issue has become bigger than him or Adriel.

"The Native American Freedom of Religion Act was passed in 1978. I was three. I was three when my people were finally given the ability to express their religious beliefs," he says. "Here we are, 30 years later, and they want me to give it back. I don't feel like I can waver on this."

paul.knigh[email protected]

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Paul Knight
Contact: Paul Knight