Alabama & Coushatta Tribes v. BIG SANDY SCHOOL D.

Decision Date12 March 1993
Docket NumberNo. 9:92 CV 170.,9:92 CV 170.
Citation817 F. Supp. 1319
PartiesALABAMA AND COUSHATTA TRIBES OF TEXAS, a sovereign Indian Nation, et al., Plaintiffs, v. TRUSTEES OF the BIG SANDY INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Texas




Donald Juneau, Richard B. Sobol, New Orleans, LA, for plaintiffs.

Michael Ray Buchanan, Dallas, TX, Jerry L. Hatton, Beaumont, TX, for defendants.


JUSTICE, District Judge.

Plaintiffs, Native American students and their tribe, have applied for a preliminary injunction in the above-styled civil action. A hearing on their application was held on January 4, 1993. Plaintiffs contend that the dress code promulgated and enforced by the Big Sandy Independent School District violates their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion, in conjunction with other First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Because plaintiffs have stated a "hybrid claim," the dress code regulation will be subjected to the highest level of scrutiny.

The findings of fact and conclusions of law relating to this action are set forth in this memorandum opinion. Unless specified to the contrary, the individual witnesses' testimony was adopted in the findings of fact.

I. Findings of Fact

Plaintiffs, the Alabama and Coushatta Tribes of Texas ("Tribe") and twelve Native American students, through their parents and guardians, commenced this action for injunctive relief and monetary damages against the Trustees of the Big Sandy Independent School District ("Trustees"), individually and in their official capacities as Trustees, Thomas Foster, Superintendent of the Big Sandy Independent School District, individually and in his official capacity, and Robert Fountain, Principal of Big Sandy Independent School District, individually and in his official capacity. Plaintiffs allege that their constitutional rights to free exercise of religion and free speech under the First Amendment, and to due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment, have been violated by a school dress code. A temporary restraining order was issued against the defendants on October 15, 1992.

The Tribe is a sovereign nation recognized as one tribal unit by the United States. 25 U.S.C. §§ 731-737. Historically, the Tribe used, possessed, and occupied a portion of what is known as the Big Thicket in Polk County, Texas. The Alabama and Coushatta Reservation is now situated in Polk County, Texas.

The following persons are members of the Tribe, and are plaintiffs in this action: Gilman Abbey, through his parent and guardian, Arlene Abbey; Harris Thompson, Jr., through his parent and guardian, Harris Thompson, Sr.; Danny John, through his parent and guardian, Joe John; Joslynn and Ian Liscano, through their parent and guardian, Rowena Liscano; Lonnie Williams, through his parent and guardian, Laberta Williams; Maynard, Simeon, Emmanuel, and Seth Williams, through their parents and guardians, Waynne and Leonard Williams.

The Big Sandy Independent School District has enforced a dress code restricting the hair length of all male students for the past twenty-five years. The current version of the regulation provides as follows:

Boys' hair should be of reasonable length and style so as not to interfere with the instructional program. Boys' hair should be no longer than the top of a standard dress collar.

It does not appear that the hair code was enacted for any discriminatory purpose, but for the following reasons:

a. To create an atmosphere conducive to learning and to minimize disruptions attributable to personal appearance, conduct, grooming and hygiene, and attire.
b. To foster an attitude of respect for authority, and to prepare students to enter the workplace, which often has rules regarding dress, conduct and appearance.
c. To ensure that the conduct and grooming of students who represent the District in extracurricular activities create a favorable impression for the District and the community.

Eighty-nine students at the Big Sandy Independent School District are members of the Tribe. The Native American male students who are named plaintiffs in this action wear their hair long, in violation of the school's dress code.

One of the plaintiffs, Gilman Abbey, age seventeen, a tenth grader, was told by Robert Fountain, Principal of Big Sandy, to cut his hair at the beginning of the school year. Abbey refused, and, on September 2, 1992, he was taken out of scheduled classes and placed in in-school detention. School officials also threatened to discipline Maynard, Simeon, Emmanuel, and Seth Williams on the first day of school for wearing their hair long. These students cut their hair after Fountain told them they could not return to school until they did.

On September 16, 1992, Ian Liscano, a seventh grade student, and Joslyn Liscano, a fifth grader, were placed in in-school detention for wearing their hair long. Danny John, an eleventh grader, and Harris Thompson, Jr., a tenth grade student, were placed in in-school detention on September 21, 1992, for having long hair. On September 29, 1992, Lonnie Williams, an eighth grade student, was placed in in-school detention for the same reason.

Although there were students other than Native American students placed in in-school detention, the only students who were disciplined for violation of the prohibition on long hair were Native Americans.

Foster testified that the school's general practice is to give a three day written notice before students are suspended. He assumed, but did not know for certain, that the practice was followed with regard to these students. Foster did not know whether students and parents are informed of their right to appeal in-school detention to the Board. There was no evidence that the plaintiffs' parents were given notice of the suspensions, or told of any avenues of appeal.

While in detention, a student receives his assignments, but is not given regular instruction by the teacher of the subject. A teacher's aide, Marilyn Langley, presides over the students in detention, and provides some assistance to the students. Langley has a college degree in business, but does not have a teaching certificate. Regular teachers schedule conference periods, during which time they are available to assist the suspended students upon the students' request.

The plaintiffs generally fell behind in their school work while they were suspended, in comparison to the students who attended regular classes. Danny John testified that he fell somewhat behind while he was suspended, but worked hard to keep up, and attended extra tutoring sessions after school during his suspension. He stated that Langley was only able to give him limited assistance, and that he needed access to the teachers for each of his regular classes. Langley testified that John was receptive to her assistance, and that he frequently requested conferences with his regular teachers so that he could keep up with the other students.

Gilman Abbey testified that, although he and the other Native American students were allowed to return to regular classes in October, because of the temporary restraining order issued by this court, he is still behind in his work, especially in geometry. Langley stated that Abbey was not receptive to her assistance, but that he was a poor student who would be a poor student whether he was in in-school suspension or not.

At the preliminary injunction hearing, a witness for the plaintiffs, Hiram F. Gregory, Ph.D., an anthropologist specializing in southeastern Native American tribes, testified that, prior to the 1900's, many southeastern tribes wore their hair long as a symbol of moral and spiritual strength. It was a common Native American belief that the hair, similar to other body parts, was sacred, and that to cut the hair was a complicated and significant procedure. A hair cut was considered the equivalent of dismemberment of a body part. Generally, hair was to be cut only as a sign of mourning a close family member's death. Southeastern tribes believed that, to cut the hair at any other time, without the safeguards of tribal ritual, would disrupt the "oneness" of that person's spirit and subject that person's body to invasion by witchcraft.

While Dr. Gregory was able to testify extensively about the religious practices of southeastern Native American tribes in general, he stated that there is a lack of detailed information about the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe's traditional beliefs. The Tribe believes that its traditions and religious beliefs are the property of the tribal people, and has adopted taboos prohibiting the sharing of such information with outsiders.

Dr. Gregory testified that the Tribe traditionally engaged in a form of shamanism or animism, where everything in nature is believed to be sacred and filled with a spirit. Before the Tribe's conversion to Christianity, the Tribe relied heavily on medicine men, who were responsible for healing people, controlling events, and divining the future.

The Tribe was converted to Christianity in the 1890's by Presbyterian missionaries. The missionaries urged tribal members to give up traditional practices, such as playing stick ball and dancing, which were manifestations of native religious beliefs. During the early 1900's, there was immense pressure on Native American peoples, including the Tribe, to adapt and become assimilated into the Caucasian culture. The assimilative process included pressure on Native American men to cut their hair short, in imitation of the hair styles of white men.

After the conversion to Christianity, tribal members continued to practice their ancient religious beliefs and traditions, as they did not believe that Christianity and Native American religion were mutually exclusive concepts. To the southeastern Native American tribes, traditional practices...

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