A Native American Family Fights Against Hair Length Rules

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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."

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Paul Knight
Contact: Paul Knight