KILGORE, Neb. -- Two Kilgore parents filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Monday after they say school officials cut their children’s hair without permission, violating the family’s traditional Lakota beliefs and practices. The ACLU of Nebraska is representing the family.
The case centers on the spring of 2020, when a Cody-Kilgore Unified Schools employee cut strands of hair off two elementary school students on multiple occasions during head lice checks. This continued even after the family raised concerns with the practice, according to the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs, Alice Johnson and Norma LeRoy, and their children are Lakota tribal members affiliated with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. As part of their culture and religion, they believe hair should be kept long as a sacred symbol of their life and that hair should only be cut under specific circumstances by select individuals.
Their lawsuit argues that by cutting the students’ hair without consent, school officials violated the family’s First Amendment right to follow their sincerely held religious beliefs as well as their constitutional right to Due Process and deprived the students of their right to an education free of racial discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
The discrimination claim is linked to the school’s differential treatment of lice checks. While the school’s written head lice policy includes no mention of cutting hair, a letter from the school’s principal and district superintendent acknowledges that the district was following a different, unwritten policy for Native American students.
Both students’ hair was cut on two known occasions. After learning about the haircuts, Alice and Norma took time to educate school officials about their beliefs and offered reasonable actions school officials could take to remedy the situation; however, their children’s hair was cut once again. Johnson said she was heartbroken when she learned the children’s hair had been cut and prays daily that people will learn that every culture has teachings that need to be understood and respected.
“We believe our hair is our spirit; as it grows, our spirit grows,” she said. “My children’s once happy spirits were taken from them. Years ago, these kinds of acts were done to assimilate Native Americans and now they have disrupted our lives and my children’s learning.”
Rose Godinez, legal and policy counsel at?the ACLU of Nebraska, said the entire situation could have been avoided if the school had simply followed written policy and respected the family’s beliefs.
“This case is about ensuring Native American students in Nebraska feel safe and confident that their beliefs, traditions, and personal dignity are respected as required by the First Amendment and federal law,” Godinez said. “Discrimination and disrespect have no place in Nebraska.”
The lawsuit requests the Court find the school violated the students’ rights and award damages as it sees fit.
Read the lawsuit in its entirety here.