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TAlice, Norma, and their children walk together in Kilgore, Nebraska. Photo by Samantha Roubideaux
‘I was in shock when I heard her say that’
Lakota couple sues after secretary cuts daughters’ hair without permission
Monday, May 17, 2021
Indianz.Com

A Rosebud Lakota couple is suing a school in northern Nebraska after a secretary at the school allegedly cut their daughters’ hair without permission from the two Native mothers, according to a lawsuit filed Monday.

The ACLU of Nebraska filed the lawsuit on behalf of Alice Johnson and Norma LeRoy before the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska. The lawsuit alleges Marvanne Logterman, an elementary administrative assistant at Cody-Kilgore Unified Schools, cut the hair of the couple’s 6-year-old and 10-year-old daughters.

Logterman did so after allegedly finding lice in the girls’ hair.

The school is in Cody, Nebraska, just south of South Dakota’s Rosebud Reservation.

Johnson said she learned about the incident after school on March 2, 2020, when her 10-year-old daughter told her that Logterman had cut her hair at school.

“I was in shock when I heard her say that,” Johnson told Indianz.Com. “I had to get myself together.”

Complaint: Johnson v. Cody-Kilgore Unified School District [PDF]
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That night, Johnson called Lambert and reported the incident and demanded that the school stop cutting the girls’ hair, saying doing so violated their Lakota cultural beliefs. The next day, Lambert called her to say that he had spoken to Logterman, though he offered no details about the conversation.

According to the lawsuit, Lambert failed to direct Logterman to stop cutting the two girls’ hair between March 2, 2020, and March 4, 2020, when Johnson received a phone call from Logterman in which the secretary informed her that she had cut her 10-year-old daughter’s hair again after suspecting she had lice.

LeRoy inspected her 6-year-old daughter’s hair the same day and found two nearly bald patches.

“You could clearly see it when Norma was parting her hair,” Johnson said. “I could not figure out why she just didn’t pluck the one hair, just pull it out.”

Johnson called Lambert again to report the incident, but he claimed he didn’t know about the recent haircut.

On March 9, 2020, Johnson, LeRoy and Lakota elders attended the Cody-Kilgore School District’s Board of Education meeting. They asked the school to return the girls’ hair in order for them to be properly dispose of the hair according to their Lakota customs.

“For many Native Americans across various tribes, including the Lakota, hair is regarded as an extension of their physical being and can symbolize mourning,” the lawsuit states. “(The two girls) have been taught traditional Lakota beliefs and practices by Alice and Norma since they were very young. These teachings have included the belief that their hair should be kept long as a sacred symbol of their own life and cut only under specific circumstances such as after the death of a loved one.”

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The daughters of Alice Johnson and Norma LeRoy. Photo by Samantha Roubideaux

The next day, Lambert sent a letter to Johnson and LeRoy that had a piece of scrap paper with a single strand of hair taped to it. The women never received any other hair from the school.

The lawsuit alleges the school violated their First Amendment right to practice their religion, as well as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance, including public schools.

According to the lawsuit, the school violated the girls’ rights by treating them differently than other students when dealing with suspected head lice. The school’s usual procedures are set forth in the school’s student handbook, which states: “(S)tudents found to have live head lice or louse eggs will not be permitted at school and will be sent home.”

By cutting the girls’ hair instead of simply sending them home, the school violated their civil rights, the lawsuit alleges.

In a March 19th letter, Lambert admitted that the school’s policy regarding the treatment of Native students with suspected head lice is to cut their hair, tape it to a piece of paper and send it home to the family.

“This letter is an admission by Defendant Lambert that he approved the process of cutting the hair of Native American students and sending it home taped to a piece of paper, contrary to the School District’s written policy,” the lawsuit states.

In total, Logterman cut the two girls’ hair at least four times between the week of February 24, 2020, and March 6, 2020, without Johnson or LeRoy’s consent.

The lawsuit alleges the school’s policy is degrading and embarrassing and causes anxiety for the two girls.

“The unwritten policy serves no purpose other than to make (the girls) ashamed or resentful of their Native American race, traditional Lakota religion, heritage, and identity,” the lawsuit states.

Johnson and LeRoy fear their daughters will become ashamed of their Lakota identities, resent their religious practices and abandon their beliefs.

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Norma LeRoy, left, and Alice Johnson. Courtesy photo

The lawsuit alleges the school district’s practices beckon to earlier educational policies enacted during the federal boarding school era, when the federal government separated Native children from their families and put them in schools that prohibited them from practicing their indigenous customs.

The school’s decision to cut the girls’ hair has resulted in the girls no longer wanting to go to school, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit requests “general and specific damages as allowed by law,” as well as attorney’s fees and repayment of the costs of the lawsuit.

Johnson said she has never experienced discrimination like this before in Cody, Nebraska, where she grew up.

“This is where I wanted to raise my kids,” she said. “I’ve never had these kinds of problems in the school system.”