Another Stereotype of the Month entry:
American Indian teen allowed back in classes after 73-day ban
The Associated Press
5/16/03 9:04 PM
FORT COVINGTON, N.Y. (AP) — A 17-year-old American Indian student who was banned from classes at his high school for 73 days for wearing a religious headband has been allowed to return to school.
Aroniakeha Elijah returned to classes Wednesday after being segregated from his classmates, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based public-interest law firm that intervened in the case in April.
"He called me during lunch hour and said he was quite pleased," Derek Gaubatz, an attorney for the Becket Fund, said Friday. "He's now going to set up meetings with individual teachers to map out a plan to fill the gap in his education and prepare for Regents exams. They're very important for his college aspirations."
College was far from Elijah's mind when he was confined to a windowless room at Salmon River High School in January for wearing a red headband signifying a rite of passage within his traditional Iroquois religion.
School officials regarded it as a violation of a no-bandanna rule and ordered him to remove it.
"They have no written policy with regard to bandannas," Gaubatz said. "They do have a written policy regarding religious headware, which says that it may be worn."
When Elijah refused to take off the headband, the school segregated him from the other students in a room known as "the box."
"He was just left to sit there," Gaubatz said. "He'd have to go to lunch separately so nobody would see the headband. They said he could come back if he stuck an eagle feather in the headband. I guess it was their own unique way of saying that he was truly Indian if he had done that."
Elijah, an accomplished lacrosse player and cross-country runner, also was suspended for the entire athletic season, jeopardizing his chances for a college athletic scholarship, according to Becket attorneys.
"I don't want to play sports with them or represent them anymore," Elijah told the Watertown Times.
Salmon River officials worried Elijah's headband would prompt other students to challenge school rules.
"The concern was fallout from other kids," Superintendent Glenn R. Bellinger said. "It was a concern. We had to walk carefully with it."
State Education Department spokesman Bill Hirschen said the department was not aware of the situation at the school and had no comment. David Ernst of the New York State School Boards Association also said he was unaware and declined comment.
The Salmon River Central School District, about 150 miles north of Syracuse, provides public education to 1,532 students with Mohawk Indians comprising more than half of the total enrollment.
The district is one of 13 within the state which contracts to provide an education to American Indian students who attend the school and one of only three districts operating a reservation school.
Gaubatz and attorney Robert Greene met with school officials earlier this week to reach a settlement. The agreement allowed Elijah to return to his regular classes, receive tutoring to help make up the work he missed, and to wear his red head cloth.
The stereotype here is treating Native religious accouterments—headbands, feathers—as if they have no spiritual meaning. Comparing Elijah's headband to a gang bandanna shows how the school officials trivialized or dismissed its importance.
Court cases have said American society must tolerate religious accouterments like a Sikh's turban or ceremonial dagger. This case is no different.
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