Editor's note: This story has been corrected.
Parents at Tatum ISD are fighting a dress code they say is racially discriminatory.
Kambry Cox, whose son Kellan is in kindergarten, said the district’s hair guidelines, which are part of the dress code, discriminate against black boys.
According to the Tatum ISD dress code posted online, “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.”
Cox said the styles prohibited, such as “puffballs,” are ways that black children specifically wear their hair.
“That’s saying black kids cannot wear their hair up period, because I’ve never seen a white kid have puffballs,” she said. “(Not obstructing vision) becomes a problem for me because my son has dreadlocks, and they kind of fall in his eyes, so sometimes we might do a ponytail or a braid. But that’s a problem also because it states they can’t have man buns or ponytails.”
Cox said her son wanted to grow his hair out and wear dreadlocks, and letting children decide how to wear their hair helps their self esteem.
Black people developed ways to wear their hair to fit European beauty standards decades ago, Cox said, adding that the dress code at Tatum ISD feels like it is going back to that.
Edwina “Randi” Woodley has legal custody of her grandson, Michael Trimble, 4, who is in Tatum ISD’s Head Start program.
Woodley said she was called to the principal’s office during a meet the teacher event before school started where she was told to either cut her grandson’s hair or braid it and pin it up.
She then met with Superintendent J.P. Richardson, who Woodley said told her if she was so passionate about her grandson wearing his natural hair that he could put on a dress and say he is a girl because transgender students are protected by the law.
Attempts to contact district officials for comment were unsuccessful.
The News-Journal reached out to school board members, who referred question to board President Matt Crawford.
Crawford said Richardson speaks to media on behalf of the district. Tatum Primary Principal Tamara Fite also referred question to Richardson.
Richardson declined to speak with the News-Journal.
After a Facebook post started receiving attention, Woodley said a woman named Rachel Raye asked if she could start a petition for her and Trimble, which had almost 3,200 signatures as of Saturday evening.
“I didn’t know it was going to get as big as it’s gotten,” Woodley said.
The petition, which is on change.org, is called “The Civil Rights Violation of a Four Year Old African-American Tatum, Texas Boy.” The final call to action in the petition is to “tell Tatum, Texas we will not be bullied into cutting his hair.”
Woodley said she has been in conversation with the New Order National Human Rights Organization on the issue.
The group is a nonprofit organization in Marietta, Georgia, dedicated to helping people who have experienced civil rights violations, according to its website.
The organization sent a letter to the district this past week requesting a meeting with the superintendent and school board, said founding CEO Gerald Rose.
“We believe a conversation can remedy the misconception of a disruptive hairstyle and henceforth help change policy,” the letter said. “We would also like to get an understanding and have defined what exactly is a disruptive hairstyle.”
Rose said he is concerned about the climate in the school district.
“I will travel to Texas to fight for this issue,” he said. “It seems like they’re ignoring the issue.”
An attorney with the nonprofit group will look into the situation to see if there is a possible lawsuit to file against the district, Rose said.
Other Tatum residents and district alumni said this past week that they have concerns about the dress code.
LaSondra White, a Tatum resident, said if a student’s natural hair is clean and neat, it should not be a problem.
“I just don’t understand the problem with it. There are teachers that dye their hair. He’s a baby, he’s 4,” she said of Michael Trimble. “I just think it’s ridiculous. A distraction bigger than his hair could be lime green color shoelaces or the little girls with bows and feathers. There’s a lot more that can distract children than his hair.”
Tatum graduate Cashas Pollard lives in Longview and said the way the district is handling the situation is “pitiful.”
“I could understand if he had crazy color or extensions, but that’s his natural hair,” he said. “For them to say he has to have it pinned up or be transgender, that’s crazy. He’s 4 years old.”
Pollard said he was the quarterback on a state champion football team at Tatum, and he had long hair when he was in high school.
“If this kid was older and one of the main athletes at that school, I guarantee you it wouldn’t be a problem,” he said. “I got nieces and nephews that go to Tatum, and the little girls come out with big bows, which are beautiful, but I feel like those are more of a distraction than this kid’s hair.”
The issue comes back to the superintendent, Pollard said.
“He’s not from around here. He doesn’t know the culture,” he said. “When I was in school, your teachers, they knew your parents and grandparents. It was a family community. It’s not like that anymore. So many people don’t know Tatum so they don’t care how they run it.”
Richardson was hired in spring 2017 as Tatum ISD superintendent after spending eight years as Gladewater ISD superintendent. However, he got his start in education at Tatum ISD, working as a principal and director of human resources and community relations.
Martin Thompson is another Tatum graduate who said when he was going to school, students had dread locks, Afros and long ponytails.
“I hope (Woodley) don’t cut this little boy’s hair,” he said. “As long as the little boy goes to school and worries about school they ... should be worried about school, not the person’s appearance.”
Woodley said she plans to continue to fight the rule.
“This is his natural, little boy hair that he’s being denied wearing,” she said. “I’m going to fight this. I’m going to fight this with everything I’ve got.”
Cox said she wants to challenge the dress code for her son’s self-esteem.
“I don’t want you making my child feel like he’s not good enough because he wears his hair a different style,” she said. “We just want the freedom for our kids, our children to wear their hair the way they want to. For people to say my son’s natural hair is a distraction, it doesn’t feel right.”