Lipan Apache family fights Texas school district's hair length policy

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ANADARKO, Okla. - Five-year-old Adriel Arocha, currently of Stafford, Texas, has gained a lot of worldwide attention recently.

When asked by a reporter about why he wears his hair long, the young boy in braids said, ''It tells me how long I've been here.''

Originally aired by KRPC-TV, the news segment has since made it to MSNBC's Web site of most frequently viewed videos. However, the segment isn't just about a young Indian boy's hair. Instead, it is about his parents' challenge to the Needville, Texas, school district's hair length policy, a district that Adriel will most likely find himself in at the beginning of the school year, and whose hair length policy he would be violating as soon as he entered the door.

''We did this as trying to smooth the waters and offer the olive branch,'' said Adriel's father, Kenney Arocha, 33, in a phone interview with Indian Country Today. ''We notified them long before the beginning of the school year that we were coming and get an understanding of what we needed to do to have my son go to school there.''

Arocha, whose new home recently completed construction in Needville at press time, owns his own business and is of Lipan Apache descent. Although the Lipan Apache have strong historical ties to the southern Plains, the incorporated Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, based out of Corpus Christi, is not federally recognized.

Located outside of Houston, the Needville Independent School District has strict dress and hair codes regarding its students. In order to clear the way for his son, Arocha said that he went through the proper channels of the school district, which include first making a grievance with the principal, then the superintendent and, finally, a meeting with the school board.

On July 16, Arocha met with the school board and presented his case. According to both Arocha and a spokesperson for the school district, the school board ultimately made the decision to not make a decision because the Arocha family has not yet moved into the district to enroll Adriel as a student.

''They dodged the bullet on a technicality,'' Arocha said. ''According to them, we still do not technically live in the city. Since we do not live in the city, my son is not able to register legally in their school district. Since he's not registered in the school district, he is not a student. Since he is not a student, they have not denied anyone their rights. They say it's a non-issue.''

In the case that Adriel is enrolled as a student in the Needville District, Arocha said that he would then be required to go through the same three stages of grievances and then be required to show proof of the family's sincerely held religious beliefs.

''The district has a dress code and a hair code for students,'' said Rhonda Crass, attorney for the school district. ''In the event a student asks for an exception, under state or federal law, then at that point the school would evaluate it. At current, the student is welcome to move into the community. The student is welcome to enroll in the community. If the student moves into the community, the student will be required to follow the dress code unless they request an exception and are granted one.''

Crass said that part of this process of giving evidence of deeply held religious convictions would be to express these beliefs in writing in their presentation to the school board. However, Arocha said that's been a part of some of the problems he's received from the superintendent, Curtis Rhodes, and from the school board meeting - having to prove beliefs that aren't codified. In the same MSNBC.com news clip that featured Adriel, Rhodes is quoted on camera as saying that the Arocha family would have to ''prove that there's a recognized religion.''

''I think that's really kind of demeaning, honestly, to ask somebody how they recognize their religion,'' Arocha said. ''I don't even understand how to approach that statement. I've told him on several occasions in a closed session and last night at the board meeting with several members of the community there watching. We don't have a lot of written tradition. We do that for a reason. All of our history is passed down orally. There is no way that I could open a book and show him and cite chapter and verse as to how we live our lives.''

When asked about the statement made by Rhodes, Crass said that it ''could possibly be a misquote.'' She then immediately emphasized federal and state laws regarding exemptions for religious beliefs.

''If a student can demonstrate a sincerely held religious belief according to state or federal law,'' she said, ''then they'll certainly be granted an exception if they follow the guidelines set out by the state and federal law and the courts in establishing a sincerely held religious belief.''

Soon, Arocha will be enrolling his son in Needville's Elementary School, with the possibility of having to go through the three-part grievance process again almost a certainty. For Arocha, the fight to keep his son's hair long and get an education is a multifaceted issue that extends not only on a religious basis but a constitutional one as well.

''This is important not only on a spiritual, cultural and religious level,'' Arocha said. ''They're asking us to suspend the Constitution. The [American Indian Religious Freedom Act] wasn't passed until 1978. I was 3 years old when we were finally allowed to believe openly the way we do and practice how we see fit. Here we are, 30 years later, and they're asking me to give that back, and I cannot do that.''