Lincoln, Neb. – A Lakota family from North Central Nebraska is settling a federal civil rights lawsuit that arose out of allegations that a school employee cut the hair of their two children without parental permission and against their religious beliefs. The consent decree agreed to by the parties and entered by the federal court binds school officials to terms related to cutting students’ hair, training staff, and recognizing Indigenous heritage.
Alice Johnson and Norma LeRoy sued the district two years ago, arguing that the cutting of their children’s hair had violated the family’s traditional religious Lakota beliefs and their right to be free of racial and religious discrimination. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nebraska has been representing the family with support from the Harvard Law School Religious Freedom Clinic.
More than a year of negotiations followed a court decision allowing the case to move forward. A consent decree and order entered by the court today outlines terms to end the lawsuit.
As part of the consent decree, the district has agreed to implement a policy that prohibits school employees from cutting students’ hair without written consent from parents or guardians. The district will provide staff with cultural competency training that includes information on Native American cultures. It will also ensure recognition of Native American Heritage Month as well as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The consent decree will last five years.
The order also includes monetary damages for the family.
Today’s consent decree and order notes that all parties agree that “affording equal protection of students’ religious beliefs is essential" to compliance with the U.S. Constitution" and federal law, and that “this can best be achieved by a cooperative effort.”
Plaintiff Alice Johnson made this statement on the settlement:
“In our culture, we believe our hair is our essence. And although that part of my children has been taken from them, I am at peace knowing that school officials will never cut the hair of a child ever again and Native children will have access to a learning environment that will learn to understand and respect our culture. Regardless of their religions or culture, every child in Nebraska deserves this.”
ACLU of Nebraska Legal Director Rose Godinez made this statement on the settlement:
“While this consent decree does not reverse the harm experienced by the Johnson and Leroy family, it represents a significant step toward upholding the fundamental freedoms and cultural heritage of Indigenous communities across Nebraska. The Johnson-Leroy family, a Lakota family, have a special and specific cultural religious belief and practice pertaining to hair. As such, the spiritual, cultural, and emotional harm experienced by the Johnson-Leroy family cannot be fully understood without placing it into the historical context of boarding schools which separated Native American children from their families and tribes and denied them the rights of cultural and religious expression. History must not repeat itself. This consent decree will ensure the School District provides a learning environment where students of different religious and cultural backgrounds are seen, and their differences are not only respected but acknowledged and honored.”
Harvard Law School Religious Freedom Clinic Director Josh McDaniel made this statement on the settlement:
“This settlement is an important win for religious liberty. We are grateful to our clients for their courage and perseverance in bringing this lawsuit not only to vindicate their most fundamental sacred Lakota beliefs but to secure meaningful policy changes that will ensure religious and civil rights protections for all families.”
The entry of the consent decree follows recent legislative action related to Indigenous students’ rights. Earlier this year, the family testified before the Nebraska Legislature in support of a bill that would protect students’ right to wear their natural hair, protective hairstyles, headdresses and tribal regalia. Gov. Jim Pillen signed those protections into law in early June.