Long-Haired Native American Boy Blocked From School

The Media came to Needville Tuesday night to cover the fight between small-town Texas and a Native American family.

The setting was a school board meeting at Needville High School, and the board voted on whether to allow a 5-year-old boy, Adriel Arocha, to attend kindergarten despite his long hair. Adriel's parents say the hair is a symbol of the family's Native American beliefs.

Since the Houston Press first wrote about the story earlier this month, the case has gained widespread attention.

Television cameras and photographers focused on the townsfolk who packed into a classroom at Needville High School. Locals were interviewed inside the classroom and outside the school, and the majority said they didn't want a long-haired kid in their kindergarten; it would be the first step in letting in big city problems.

"I feel sympathy for the family's cause," one woman said. "They just need to take it somewhere else. There's lots of places where he'd be accepted."

Kenney Arocha and Michelle Bettenbaugh, the boy's parents, spoke to the school board. So did the lawyer the family has retained to help with the fight against the school.

"I'm asking you to change a rule," Arocha told the crowd. "You're asking me to change the Constitution."

The Needville police got involved when Arocha and a man in the crowd argued about Arocha's Indian identification and his Indian number. Arocha said he wasn't a "show pony," which the man took as an insult.

The strongest speech of the night came from Cody Swimmer, a member of the American Indian Movement. He asked the town to focus on acceptance, not fear. Swimmer also talked about his service in Vietnam and his time performing with Willie Nelson in the 1980s.

"Somebody needs to get Willie's opinion on this matter," Swimmer said. "That'd be worth its weight in gold."

The school board voted to keep Adriel out of school. Not because of his hair, but the members said Arocha and Betenbaugh hadn't established residency in Needville. Once the family does, they can attempt to enroll Adriel in school again, be denied, and repeat this whole process.

-- Paul Knight

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