A 7-year-old Native American student was removed from his classroom this week after school officials decided his Mohawk haircut was too distracting.
The second-grader, whose parents are Seneca and Paiute, chose a hairstyle that is popular with native peoples in many places, his father said Thursday, but his wife still received a call from Utah’s Arrowhead Elementary School in St. George, saying it went against the dress code.
Teyawwna Sanden was not happy when her son’s school called and said his mohawk needed to go.
Teyawwna said principal Susan Harrah asked her to pick her son Kobe up and get his hair cut. Sanden’s initial reaction was to take Kobe out of school.
Teyawwna says the mohawk is integral to her son’s Native American culture. ‘He’s had a mohawk on and off his whole life. His hair, it’s important to him.’
Her son was allowed to return to class only after a member of the Seneca National Tribe, located in New York, penned a letter to Washington County School District administrators confirming that the hairstyle is a common tradition among tribal members.
“It is common for Seneca boys to wear a Mohawk because after years of discrimination and oppression, they are proud to share who they are,” wrote William Canella, a Seneca Nation Tribal Councilor. “It’s disappointing that your school does not view diversity in a positive manner, and it is our hope that (the boy) does not suffer any discrimination by the school administration or faculty as a result of his hair cut.”
Gary Sanden, the boy’s father, said Thursday that he was sympathetic with the school’s reasoning behind having a dress code, but was unsure why he had to jump through so many hoops to have his son’s style approved.
The parents offered to bring in a tribal card proving the boy is Native American, but the district demanded a tribal letter.
Sanden said the family had decided to decline showing a photograph of their son’s haircut, citing concerns about backlash he might receive at the school due to media attention.
Rex Wilkey, assistant superintendent over primary education, said he thought the issue was overblown. District policy allows for school administrators to judge what constitutes “distracting,” and such judgment calls are part of what always makes enforcement of a dress code difficult. Once it was shown that there was a cultural value attached to the boy’s haircut, he was allowed back into class, he said.
It’s not the first time a Native American student was punished for expressing their culture.
In 2012, Miranda Washinawatok was forced to sit out a school basketball game as punishment for speaking her native Menominee language in class at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Shawano, Wisconsin. The school later apologized for disciplining her.
John Mejia, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said school districts are given a lot of discretion in setting dress and appearance standards, “but it is well established law that you do not shed all of your constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door.”
When it comes to religious or cultural issues where a particular style is important to an individual student and his or her family, the school needs to make a reasonable accommodation, Mejia said.