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Louisiana school district relents, allows Rastafarian students' dreadlocks, caps

By Aarika Mack
The Freedom Forum Online
09.25.00
Joe Cook, executive director of the Louisiana ACLU, right, represented plaintiffs Georgiana Helaire, left, Jamison Helaire, second from left, Edgar Green, and in front Tosh and Avia Bruno in a recently settled suit against the Lafayette Parish public schools. Officials had banned the youngsters — members of the Rastafarian faith — from attending school until they conformed with the district's hair code.

A Louisiana school board and the parents of eight children kept out of school because of their dreadlocks and head coverings have reached a tentative agreement that will allow the children to exercise their Rastafarian beliefs while attending the Lafayette Parish public schools.

"Absurd, asinine, stupid," are a few words that the family's Breaux Bridge attorney, David Benoit, used to describe the dress code that has kept the children out of school since last April. Benoit, along with ACLU-affiliated attorneys Marjorie Esman and Eugene Thomas, had asked a federal court to declare the school district's restrictions on head coverings and hair length an unconstitutional infringement on the children's religious freedom and freedom of speech.

Rastafarians Georgiana Helaire, mother of seven of the children, and Edgar Green, father of the eighth, moved as a family to Lafayette from Oakland, Calif., at the end of the 1999-2000 school year. However, when the parents attempted to enroll the children — who range from first to ninth grades — in public schools, officials turned them away, citing the district's dress-code restrictions.

The family believes the dress code — which bans headwear and restricts "extreme hairstyles" — is an affront to Rastafarian religious requirements that adherents wear their long hair in dreadlocks. Rastafarians also customarily wear head coverings, called "crowns," when in public.

The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune reported earlier this month that Helaire and Green had made previous attempts at working the situation out amicably, but to no avail.

"If this were a Catholic child wanting to bring rosary beads to school, this never would have happened," Esman told The Times-Picayune. "If this were a Jewish child wanting to wear a yarmulke, one wonders what the School Board would have done."

"In light of the many unfortunate incidents that have happened in schools recently, many school officials have rushed to these sort of measures to prevent further misfortunes, but this is a clear case of the school and the superintendent going overboard," said Benoit. "The superintendent is trying to create a homogenous group of kids with this type of initiative."

Benoit said that the Sept. 20 agreement, when ratified by the full school board, should allow the children to keep their dreadlocks and coverings as long as the hair and coverings can be inspected.

"The family made some minor accommodations that they weren't happy about but that did not conflict with their religion," Benoit said. "The important thing is that they're back in school ..., and I'm optimistic that the remaining members of the school board will be reasonable."

"It's foolish to try to fight it," board member John Earl Guidry told the Associated Press. "The law says they have the right to wear it. They told us there's no chance we can win."

The AP also reported that board member Ed Sam said: "The bottom line is, those children need to be in school. We've kept them out of school long enough."

Benoit said he did not know when the school board would vote on the agreement. The school board's attorney did not return calls for comment.


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