NEW ORLEANS — Five-year-old American Indian Curtis Harjo can wear his hair in a braid to school after all.
The ACLU of Louisiana and the Native American Rights' Fund in Boulder, Colo., which represented the family in the matter, said Nov. 19 that St. Tammany Parish's public schools superintendent had reversed a decision that the boy could attend school only if he wore his hair in a bun.
"All students have a right to freely exercise their religious beliefs," said Katie Schwartzmann, legal director for the ACLU of Louisiana. "That's all this is about."
Harjo's religion, like that of many Native Americans, includes a belief that hair should not be cut, except as a symbol of mourning upon the death of a loved one, Schwartzmann said.
The principal at the elementary school the child attended had told Harjo's mother that the boy would be required to cut his hair — which was worn in a single braid down his back — to continue to go to school. The principal rejected the Harjos' request for an exemption to the school's dress code. The Harjos appealed, but Superintendent Gayle Sloan ruled that the child had to wear his hair in a bun to attend school.
The ACLU argued that such a rule suggested the boy must hide his religious beliefs, and the Harjos appealed again, this time to the St. Tammany Parish School Board. Sloan later reversed her decision, deciding to allow the little boy to attend school with his braid.
"We just wanted Curtis to be able to go to school without prejudice," said Joni Harjo, Curtis's mother. "It might seem to some people that Native Americans are gone, but we are not. We are still here, and I think we just had to open the school's eyes to that."
School officials are not allowed to comment on specific cases, said Meredith Mendez, director of communications for St. Tammany Parish Public Schools.
"Curtis should be allowed to wear his hair in keeping with his religious and cultural identity," Schwartzmann said. "Just as a Christian student should be allowed to wear a crucifix to school. The Constitution protects the rights of all children and parents."