When her 4-year-old son’s school year abruptly ended early, his mother was understandably fuming. He had just started pre-K when they told him he had to go home.
But the reasons behind it made her even angrier.
Center Of Attention
Jabez Oates was the poor boy caught in the middle of everything. He just wanted to go to school, he and his mother even bought everything they needed to start the school year.
But she couldn’t have prepared herself for what would happen next.
Jessica wanted to make sure that her little boy had just what he needed to start the year off right.
She got new clothes, a new backpack and felt pretty confident that her son was set up for a successful school year.
“I got him so excited to go to school for his first day, I thought I had all my ducks in a row,” Jessica said.
But, just a few days later, something that she never considered would cause a lot of trouble came up.
The school told Jessica that Jabez’s outfit was the problem. It was only a few days until he had to go home because of the way he was dressed.
They’d have to change Jabez’s outfit if he wanted to go back.
The entire situation was apparently due to young Jabez’s hair. That is because the 4-year-old’s hair hadn’t been cut since he was born. The school, ironically called Barbers Hill Independent School District, didn’t accept that.
The boy’s hair hadn’t been cut for cultural reasons.
“My family is American Indian,” Jessica explained in a New York Post interview. “We are Cocopah Indian and that was the documentation that I was going to provide for the reason for my son’s long hair.”
According to the school, however, this documentation wasn’t good enough.
Making An Effort
Jessica tried to comply by putting young Jabez’s hair up into a bun instead but the school still refused to accept this. The school staff still had a problem with the young boy’s hair. Jessica was stunned to discover that the hair tie she used was now cited as a problem.
According to them, it was an “inappropriate hair accessory.”
“Apparently, the school board is a stickler for rules and can’t think of any religions or cultures that would require long hair,” Jessica remarked in a New York Post interview. That was when it became clear that the school was unwilling to compromise.
Jessica wasn’t about to leave it at that, however.
For the Oates family, having long hair is culturally a “signal of strength,” according to Jessica. And besides, she didn’t want to chop off all of her son’s hair, especially when he was so fond of it.
“He doesn’t want to cut his hair. It’s just a part of who he is,” she explained to The Huffington Post.
But the repercussions of the school board’s decision appear to be more serious than Jessica initially realized. Indeed, it seems as though being banned from school has affected Jabez negatively. “At first, I didn’t believe it impacted him as much as it did. He’s a smart, very observant little boy.
Since Monday, he has been very angry,” his mom told Today in August 2017.
And Jessica was sure that it was all to do with being sent home from school because of his long hair.
Ever since it happened, in fact, Jabez has been “confused as to why he can’t go to school anymore,” as his mom told the New York Post.
As a result, Jessica decided to do something about it.
Rather than sitting back and accepting the status quo, she started an online petition on Change.org in August 2017. The main intention of the petition is to get her son’s school to rethink a dress code that, in Jessica’s eyes, is discriminatory.
On the petition page, then, Jessica wrote a message urging people to stand with her.
She explained that she had tried to meet the school halfway by tying up her son’s hair, but he was sent home nonetheless. “It’s a sexist rule that should not be implemented for boys if it’s not implemented for girls,” she wrote.
And so far, the petition has reached over 11,000 signatures, with an overall target of 15,000. Plenty of people have commented on the page, too. “It’s stupid to deny a child an education just because they have long hair.
“If girls can have short haircuts, then why can’t boys have long hair?” one person wrote. And another good point… why are girls allowed to have long hair but not boys?
An Outdated Rule
We live in the 21st Century. “It’s definitely sexist and outdated. Many children of color have expressive haircuts that would violate this as well,” another user wrote on Twitter.
“I would think there are more pressing matters to focus on than some kid’s hair length. Be thankful he’s showing up to school,” another wrote. But how the school responded seemed like a slap in the face.
The School’s Response
Superintendent Greg Poole told CW39 that the school district policy on appearance isn’t decided by the school, but a board of trustees.
“Parents have a right to seek an appropriate educational setting for their child, just as Ms. Oates has the right to place her child in a district that reflects her personal expectations for standards of appearance,” he explained. However, what he said next made Jessica even more furious.
“There are procedures in place for addressing concerns over policy if it is Ms. Oates’ desire to have her son educated in Barbers Hill ISD,” superintendent Greg Poole explained.
“But we would—and should—justifiably be criticized if our district lessened its expectations or longstanding policies simply to appease.” But, long hair isn’t just a Native American tradition.
Not The Only Tradition
In orthodox Judaism, it is tradition to wait until a boy is three years old to cut his hair for the first time. At the age of three, boys receive their first haircut in a ritual called ‘upsherin’.
The ritual also marks the beginning of wearing the traditional yarmulke and growing out side locks (peyot) of hair. What provisions does the school make for orthodox Jewish boys?
Religious Exemption For Some
“Barbers Hill ISD has in place a policy for dress code exemptions for religious reasons, and has granted exemption to students in the past who have supplied documentation that was approved by the Board of Trustees,” a school representative said.
“This information was communicated with the parent at registration,” the rep explained via email. However, that’s not what Jessica was told.
Jessica also recorded a video of her conversation with a school employee as she tried to argue her case for her son’s long hair.
The woman she spoke to said “it’s just school policy” several times, then she offered Jessica an analogy to back the school up, and the implications she made infuriated all of Jessica’s supporters.
“When Rudy Giuliani came into New York City, the first thing he did was go after graffiti. They had all sorts of other things that seem big, but it’s perception, it’s a brand, and that’s just important to our school board and this community,” the woman explained.
Jessica responded: “So little boys with long hair are dirty, essentially? Y’all are cleaning it up? I don’t get it — I’m not understanding what’s wrong about my son having long hair.”
“To me, it’s sexist and archaic. I don’t have anything against people who cut their child’s hair, obviously, but for someone to be against me for keeping something that nature and science intended is absolutely flabbergasting because it’s not dirty, it’s not unkempt, it’s not problematic,” Jessica continued.
“He’s a beautiful little boy who’s worthy of all the respect and education as any little boy in this school district who has short hair. That is my issue.”
Sadly, Jessica has received a lot of backlash for her beliefs, and her story seems to have exposed an ugly side of her community.
“I’ve gotten a lot of backlash from the community about this. It has been vile,” says Jessica. “A lot of people have told me to move and get out of here.”
A Failed System
Jessica is a single mom and she also takes care of her aunt, who has serious health issues.
“I can’t home school because I work full-time and I’m trying to find a second job,” she said. “I’m a single mom, so home-schooling really just isn’t an option. All I have is the public school system and right now, that is absolutely failing my child.”