Michigan ACLU Sues Charter School Over Suspension of Student for Long Hair

Published October 04, 2007

| FoxNews.com

The mother of a 14-year-old high school student wants her son back at school after he was suspended for long hair that doesn't comply with the dress code.

Claudius Benson, a ninth grader at Old Redford Academy in southwest Detroit, hasn't had a haircut in 10 years because of his religious beliefs.

"This is not about a haircut, it's about our deeply held spiritual beliefs," Alecha Benson, Claudius' mother, told FOXNews.com. "These are strongly held religious beliefs that we have had in practice for much of my son's life."

The school won't allow a religious exemption that would permit Benson to return to school.

"Right now, my son is really anxious to return to school," Alecha Benson said.

Claudius Benson's hair has not been cut since he was 4 years old because of the family's interpretation of Old Testament scriptures that prevent the cutting of his hair.

The Michigan American Civil Liberties Union sued the public charter preparatory high school Tuesday after the family complained that Claudius Benson was suspended from school three days after enrolling for violating the dress code. Benson remains suspended pending permanent expulsion.

"There was no other option but to vindicate his rights through a lawsuit," said Michael Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU Michigan chapter.

Click here to read the complaint.

"Plaintiff wears long hair in keeping with his family's religious beliefs which are grounded in The Old Testament, and which demand compliance with various scriptural laws, including a passage in the Book of Leviticus that he and his family interpret as forbidding the cutting of hair," according to the complaint.

The Old Redford Academy "reserves the right to counsel, reprimand and even dismiss a student if the student does not cooperate or comply with the school standards."

"Hair must be neatly groomed in a close-cropped hair cut. Hair must be evenly shaped. (Braids twists, dreadlocks, etc., are unacceptable)," according to the school's dress code.

The school stands behind its dress code but will consider the Benson family's request.

“Anytime somebody looks for an exemption to our dress code police, we’re going to take a good, hard look at it to make sure it’s an appropriate request,” said Joseph Urban, an attorney representing Old Redford Academy. "We need to examine whether he is in fact asking for a religious exemption and what he's asserting for the religious exemption."

A school security guard escorted Claudius Benson to a meeting with a school administrator on Sept. 6 — the third day of school — where he was given a suspension form, according to the complaint.

Alecha Benson appealed to the school's board of directors on Sept. 11, explaining that her son's hair could not be cut because of religious beliefs. Claudius Benson remains on suspension.

Alecha Benson said she asked the ACLU for help because a board won't fully review the matter until Oct. 10, which would leave her son out of school for more than a month.

The school is allowing Claudius Benson to complete homework assignments at home but school policy provides a "0" grade on them since he is on suspension, Alecha Benson said.

The ACLU wants the school to declare its action unconstitutional and to allow Claudius Benson back on campus with the suspension removed from his school record.

URL

http://www.foxnews.com/story/2007/10/04/michigan-aclu-sues-charter-school-over-suspension-student-for-long-hair