Lakota family settles religious-rights suit against Nebraska school district
OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - The fight against Cody-Kilgore Unified School District was over students’ rights, their students after nurses cut the hair of two of the Johnson-Leroy family children without permission and against their religious beliefs.
Our Hair is Sacred was heard in the last Nebraska legislative session with the passage of a state law prohibiting discrimination in public schools based on hair and tribal regalia.
And this month it was ruled in the courts in favor of the family, with a $227,500 financial settlement and a monitored and enforceable consent decree.
“That includes the acknowledgment and recognition of Native American Heritage Month, of Indigenous Peoples Day at Cody-Kilgore Unified School District, there’s also going to be changes to the student and employee handbook to denote that no student’s hair should be cut.”
The ACLU of Nebraska along with the Harvard Law School Religious Freedom Clinic represented the family in the case and in their efforts to inspire legal change through legislation.
“I think this is just the beginning as far as Nebraska’s implementation of protections for tribal regalia, hair, and headdresses with the passing of the law,” Godinez said. “That law will go into effect in 2025. and the next step is for the Nebraska Department of Education to come up with a model policy that all school districts can implement.”
An ACLU press release said the “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.”
“Initially we wanted an apology, so it’s not what we had initially wanted,” Alice Johnson said. “But our end goal was getting the consent decree, and we did get that policy change.”
Even though the two-spirit couple never got that apology, Norma Leroy said it has made them stronger.
“I always tell people you know what you do in the dark comes out into the light,” Leroy said.
On the campus of Godinez’s alma mater, Creighton University, there is a Nebraska historical marker detailing more than 12,000 years of Native American history on area land. She said perhaps this legal decision can serve as a different type of marker in Nebraska’s history moving forward.
“This case and this example of haircuts only relive that trauma that Native Americans have gone through in the past,” Godinez said. “And we hope this consent decree and overall case and legislation serve as a lesson for all school districts to really teach them that history was not too long ago and it continues to repeat itself maybe in different ways but it is time now to reform that system and to adopt policies that are inclusive of all Native American students.”
“I’m feeling like we accomplished something,” Alice said. “But I know we still have a long road to go.”