A judge in the United States District Court of Nebraska denied a north-central school district’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit alleging school officials had violated Lakota students’ religious and culture freedom by cutting their hair. The children and their parents are members of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

On Nov. 10, the judge announced the lawsuit would proceed. Allegations the students’ due process was violated, as well as allegations of battery against the school official who cut the hair for a lice check, would be dismissed.

 “[T]he Court can plausibly infer that the defendants’ allegedly targeted actions, even if done in pursuit of the legitimate government interest of detecting head lice, in effect selectively imposed a substantial burden on the religious exercise of Native American students,” the order reads.

The lawsuit, brought by the ACLU of Nebraska on behalf of the plaintiffs Alice Johnson and Norma LeRoy, alleges Johnson and LeRoy’s children had their hair wrongfully cut by a school official for a lice check at Kilgore Elementary in the spring of 2020. Johnson and LeRoy are seeking damages for emotional harm, loss of dignity, and deprivation of their constitutional rights. Cutting hair is a sacred practice in Lakota religion. By cutting their children’s hair, the parents said the school violated their culture, religion and subjected them to racial discrimination.

While the school’s head lice policy does not mention cutting hair, in motions to dismiss the school and its legal team said the school sometimes cut hair to send home to parents when lice is present. Johnson and LeRoy said lice was never found in their kids’ hair.

The judge overseeing the case also denied the defendants claim for qualified immunity. Qualified immunity shields public officials performing discretionary functions from liability for conduct that does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known, the order reads.

ACLU of Nebraska Interim Legal Director Rose Godinez said that’s notable.

“School employees were on clear notice that their unwritten lice check policy violated students’ religious beliefs and yet they repeated the behavior,” Godinez said in an ACLU press release released today. “The bottom line is that students have a right to live true to their beliefs and cultures at school. We look forward to making our case as this litigation moves forward.”

contact the writer at news@thereader.com

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Chris Bowling

Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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