LINCOLN, Neb. – A federal lawsuit that says a Nebraska school district violated a family’s rights is moving forward. The judge hearing the case denied a request to dismiss claims that Cody Kilgore Unified Schools engaged in unlawful racial discrimination and violated a family’s First Amendment right to follow sincerely held religious beliefs.
The ACLU of Nebraska is representing the family.
The case centers on a school employee cutting two girls’ hair multiple times without parental permission during school lice checks, even after the parents raised concerns. As Lakota tribal members affiliated with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, the family believes hair is a sacred symbol and that it should only be cut under certain conditions.
The school’s written head lice policy includes no mention of cutting hair. The case argues this unwritten practice was instead applied only to Native American students.
In a decision issued Nov. 10, the judge dismissed a claim that the students’ due process protections were violated but wrote that claims focused on free exercise of religion and racial discrimination should move forward.
“[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 in part.
The decision clears the way for the case to go to trial.
“It’s a relief that our case is moving forward,” plaintiff Alice Johnson said. “We hope and pray that our family’s experience ensures this never happens again – not just for our kids, but all Lakota youth.”
ACLU of Nebraska Interim Legal Director Rose Godinez said it’s notable the judgment rejected a qualified immunity defense, which shields public officials from liability if they have not violated clearly established rights that a reasonable person would have known.
“School employees were on clear notice that their unwritten lice check policy violated students’ religious beliefs and yet they repeated the behavior,” Godinez said. “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.”
The lawsuit seeks a court determination that the school violated the students’ rights and damages as the judge sees fit.