Federal Judge Says Needville Shouldn't Have Kept Long-Haired Native American Boy Out of School

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A federal judge ruled this week that the Needville Independent School District was wrong to keep a five-year-old Native American boy out of kindergarten because of his long hair.

"You stand up for something that you believe is wrong, and you let people know and it gets fixed," says Adriel Arocha's father Kenney, whose Apache heritage is the reason for Adriel's long hair. "It's good to know the system works."

The ruling comes from a lawsuit filed by the ACLU in October.

"Some families don't have the stamina the Arochas had to really follow through with this. I know of a couple kids that went ahead and cut their hair because the families decided that their children couldn't afford to be out of class for as long as it'd take to get resolution," says Lisa Graybill, legal director for the ACLU of Texas. "So we'll be reaching out to those folks and letting them know of this decision."

It's been six months since we first wrote about Adriel and his family's fight against the school district.

When the school ruled that the boy would have to cut his hair, Needville superintendent Curtis Rhodes told us, "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. 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."

Kenney Arocha said, "I was three when my people were finally given the ability to express their religious beliefs. Here we are, 30 years later, and they want me to give it back. I don't feel like I can waver on this."

Adriel just wanted to go to school: "I don't know how to read. I've never gone to daycare, so I really want to go."

Stories on what happened since are here, here and here.

"It's a good decision for American Indians, but the precedent that it creates applies to kids whatever their religion. I think that point is kind of lost on folks," Graybill says. "The law that protects this kid's right to have his braids is the same law that protects all those other practices of religious freedom that transcend the particular religion that is at issue in this case."

Hair Balls left a message with Rhodes and the Needville school district, but we haven't heard back, and Graybill says the district hasn't indicated if the ruling will be appealed. Arocha hasn't heard anything from the school either, but he hopes the case is over and Adriel can move on.

"We try to explain to him on a level that he understands, and he's trying to understand it," Kenney Arocha says. "His understanding will only get better as time goes on."

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