ACLU sues school system over long-hair suspension

By Janet McConnaughey
New Orleans, Louisiana (AP) April 2011

A 13-year-old Native American student who was suspended because of his long hair should be exempt from a Baton Rouge-area school system’s dress code for religious reasons, the American Civil Liberties Union claims in a lawsuit.

Seth Chaisson, a sixth-grader at Juban Park Elementary School in Denham Springs and a member of the United Houma Nation, began growing his hair in August after attending a pow-wow and learning more about his religious and cultural heritage, attorney Katherine Schwartzmann said.

Under the system’s dress code, “Male hair length must be of even distribution. The hair may not extend below the plane of the shoulder nor down upon the eyebrow in front, nor down below the earlobes.”

Schwartzmann said in an interview that Seth’s hair doesn’t hang over his collar, and he combs it to the side to keep it out of his face. “Of course, because he’s not going to cut his hair, at some point it will be in violation of the policy,” she said.

Chaisson received six reprimands, two suspensions and a 3-hour hearing last week, but still hasn’t received a guarantee from school system that he won’t face more punishment, his attorney said.

The suit names as defendants Livingston Parish Schools Superintendent Bill Spear, principal Jeff Frizell and the nine school board members.

A statement emailed by Spear said the system respects all students’ religious beliefs but has made a detailed investigation and feels “the District’s policy and proffered exemptions will not substantially burden the student’s free exercise of that belief.”

Schwartzmann said she doesn’t know of any exemptions that have been offered. “We don’t know what they’re talking about,” she said.

The boy – referred to as “Minor Doe” in the lawsuit because of a federal court rule against identifying minor plaintiffs but identified by the ACLU – “has a sincerely held belief that the strength of a man is in his hair” and that “hair is an extension of the spirit and to cut it is akin to bodily dismemberment. A lock of hair is only to be severed during a period of mourning to signify the loss of a part of oneself after the death of a close loved one,” according to the suit.

The Houmas don’t impose any religion and therefore don’t require boys and men to grow their hair, but many members of the tribe, including many members of Chaissons’ family, do not cut their hair because of their beliefs about its importance, the suit said.

“It seems that the reason we’ve not been able to resolve this is that the School Board fundamentally questions Seth’s religious beliefs,” Schwartzmann wrote in an email Thursday. “As you can imagine, it would be personally difficult for anyone to feel like they have to prove to the government that their religious beliefs are sincere. It is especially hard on a 13 year old child to be made to do that. But Seth’s beliefs are firm, and he is willing to defend those beliefs.’’

Spear said pending litigation kept him from saying what exemptions were offered, whether Schwartzmann’s statement about apparent disbelief in Seth’s sincerity was accurate, or whether a headband or hairband might resolve the impasse by keeping Chaisson’s hair out of his eyes.

In 2008, St. Tammany Parish eventually acceded to a request for a similar exemption from the ACLU of Louisiana and the Native American Rights’ Fund of Boulder, Colo., for a 5-year-old kindergarten student who wore his hair in a braid down his back.

The principal at the boy’s elementary school first said Curtis Harjo would have to cut his hair. The superintendent then said he could attend school only if he wore his hair in a bun. The ACLU argued that would suggest that the boy had to hide his religious beliefs, and the superintendent reversed her decision.