TATUM — An empty seat could not be found in the Tatum ISD board room — or hallway or lobby — at the district’s special-called board meeting to address its dress code Monday night.
Edwina “Randi” Woodley became embroiled with Tatum ISD in August, when she took her grandson, Michael Trimble, 4, to meet his teacher at Tatum Primary School. She was called into the principal’s office.
Woodley said she was told Michael’s hair is not in compliance with the dress code and she would have to either cut it or braid it and pin it up.
Later, Woodley met with Superintendent J.P. Richardson, who she said told her if she was so passionate about her grandson wearing his natural hair that the boy could put on a dress and say he is a girl because transgender students are protected by the law.
Kambry Cox is another parent fighting against the dress code so her son, Kellan, 5, can wear his dreadlocks to school.
According to the Tatum ISD dress code posted online, a “student’s hair shall be clean and well groomed at all times and shall not obstruct vision. No extreme style or color (neon, etc. …) Only natural hair color shall be allowed. No symbols, letters or extreme designs cut in the hair shall be permitted. No ponytails, ducktails, rat-tails, male bun or puffballs shall be allowed on male students. All male hair of any type shall not extend below the top of a T-shirt collar, as it lays naturally.”
The only items on Monday’s board agenda were a public comment period and a closed session to allow the board to meet with an attorney and to discuss “matter regarding a public school a student.”
After Monday’s meeting, Richardson said claims have been made that the district’s hair code is racially discriminatory, and that the district suggested “a student identify as the opposite sex for purposes of limiting the applicability of that policy.”
“The district vehemently denies these claims,” he said. “Furthermore, district administrators are strictly prohibited from discussing matters involving specific students or their individual circumstances pursuant to state and federal law.”
Woodley spoke during public comments at the meeting.
“First of all, I’m not sure why I don’t get the same benefit of the doubt as your superintendent. But what I said he said, he said,” Woodley said. “And those of you all that are here tonight that was not here last Monday, I addressed the superintendent, at which time he had nothing to say. None of the board had anything to say.”
Board members and the superintendent cannot respond to public comments during meetings. If Woodley spoke during public comments at the last meeting, they would not have been able to respond.
Richardson said the district has had a dress code and grooming standards implemented for many years.
“While the policy has evolved over time, the district has, and will continue to, ensure that it is applied to all students in a consistent and nondiscriminatory manner,” he said. “One important step in maintaining this consistency is requiring the dress code be acknowledged by every student’s guardian at registration.”
Parents can submit documentation to request a possible exemption to the dress code for religious beliefs, he said.
Cox also spoke during public comments at the meeting.
“My favorite sign here on campus has always been the one that sits at the Primary entrance, reading ‘Tatum schools, where every student is special,’” she said. “I stand here and ask for all of you to recognize the inequality, and support change and growth for our district. I ask that you eliminate rules that have no purpose, other than to conform our children to obey certain stereotypes.”
Some who spoke, such as John Bartley, aired grievances about how Tatum is being perceived.
“It is with my deepest regrets that Tatum has been drug through the media with negative news. Our town is not perfect, it is far from it. But what the media is putting out is far from the truth,” he said. “All these board members here are elected by voters like you and I, except one and she was appointed. However, she’s been elected twice since then. So this is our choice. If this is not your choice, and you don’t agree with what they are doing, get out and vote next time.”
Bartley also said while he does not see the effect of hair on education, he does believe in following the established rules.
Jerry Hudman spoke about a phone call he received from his son in Connecticut who said Tatum is “getting drugged through the mud” and “they get what they deserve.”
Hudman said he told his son he is still proud of the town, because back when his son was a junior in high school, he had long hair. After visiting with the principal at the time, Hudman said he was told about the dress code, and his son wore his hair in a bun to comply.
“It hurts my feeling that my town of love has turned into a racist deal,” he said. “Racism does not exist here.”
Jennifer Salasises also spoke about revisiting the rule, but said Tatum is not racist.
“We can be more culturally sensitive. The African-American hair is different from normal hair, so maybe what we need to do is set a standard of unity and diversity where the community can come together,” she said. “I feel there’s a bigger issue than the hair issue. Maybe there’s something else going on that the African-American community feels like we need to address.”
Channing Centers said she wanted to look at why the grooming rule was in place and encouraged open communication.
“Just like the Constitution, the dress code is an evolving document,” she said. “It can change because of viewpoints and objectives.”
Some people stood by the rule.
“As a parent and alumni, I stand behind all the rules that the district puts forward,” Cleveland Brown said. “I know my child will be treated fairly. I know they will be safe, and I know they will get a great education. My child will follow all rules as are laid out by the school.”
Wendy Williams brought Tatum High School senior Jesse Terazas to the podium with her when she addressed trustees.
“He has had to maintain his haircut for the last several years. This is his natural hair that he lets grow longer during the summer, but he is required to get it cut above the collar prior to the first day of school,” she said. “The girls at the school enjoy braiding his hair. A few weeks ago, after one had braided his hair in class, a principal had came by the classroom and asked him to take out the braid.”
Williams said Terazas questioned the principal because his hair was braided and did not extend past his shirt collar.
“He was told that the braid came to a tail and that was not allowed,” she said. “The student then took out the braid, because those are the rules.”
The Panola County Chapter of NAACP President Bernice Smith said she was at the meeting after receiving concerned phone calls from parents.
“Superintendent Richardson, along with the Tatum Independent School board, is accountable to the taxpayers of this district,” she said. “There is no room for disparity when it comes to people of color or children of this district.”
Richardson, in a statement to the media after the meeting adjourned, said the district is committed to providing an inclusive environment in which all students are valued.
“The district is deeply concerned that the baseless claims being circulated at this time have cast doubt on that commitment,” he said. “Rather than wade further into these divisive and unproductive waters, the district respectfully requests its stakeholders continue partnering with us to meet the needs of our community.”
Woodley said she is fighting for equality for all children.
“Now, I don’t know what’s being told to you all, but I’m not from Tatum. And I don’t have as much love for Tatum as you all do,” Woodley said. “I don’t care about the reputation of Tatum. I don’t care about how it looks. What I do care for is equal rights for my grandson. What I do care for is equality for all of our children.”