Jakobe Sanden walked into his second-grade classroom with his backpack and a brand new Mohawk — a hairstyle, his father says, that represents Jakobe’s Native American roots. But it’s a symbol his school called a distraction — one that got him pulled from class.
Earlier this week, 7-year-old Jakobe was sent to the principal’s office at Arrowhead Elementary School in Santa Clara, Utah. His father, Gary Sanden, said administrators told him the hairstyle violated school policy. School officials called his parents and asked them to get it cut.
“I told the superintendent I was in no means going to cut his hair because it’s a symbol of who we are,” Sanden, 43, told The Washington Post.
The issue has since been resolved, and Jakobe is still in school; but, his parents say, they had to “jump through hurdles” to keep it that way.
Sanden said their son got a Mohawk haircut last weekend — as he had many times before — and sent him to school Monday morning. Soon after, Jakobe’s mother, Teyawnna, got a call from the school.
“We had the students that weren’t used to it,” Arrowhead principal Susan Harrah told Fox affiliate KSTU. “They had called that out. So the teacher brought the student to my attention.”
Rex Wilkey, assistant superintendent for primary education, said in a statement that administrators decided the hairstyle was “possibly in violation of the school district student grooming policy” and “the student’s parents were notified of the possible violation.”
Teyawnna Sanden, 43, posted her frustrations online.
“So f’n irritated right now,” she wrote on Facebook. “I get a call from the boys’ school and she said Kobe’s not allowed to have a Mohawk … that’s it’s school policy. WTH! Really? It’s hair!”
“It’s ironic the school is named Arrowhead,” Gary Sanden said.
The school’s online handbook does not explicitly mention hair length or hair styles, only stipulating that “hair color should be within the spectrum of color that hair grows naturally.” The school district’s dress code, however, states: “Students have the responsibility to avoid grooming that causes a distraction or disruption, interrupting school decorum and adversely affecting the educational process.
“Extremes in body piercings, hair styles and hair colors may be considered a distraction or disruption.”
Wilkey, an assistant superintendent, said district policy lets administrators decide what is distracting.
“We try to reflect the values and norms of the community,” he told USA Today. “Some things are a little more clear cut, and some things are a little more controversial. You try to manage it the best you can. Kids come in dressed all kinds of ways and it can be an issue for the school.”
After the call, Teyawnna Sanden called her husband, who was out of town on business. He called the superintendent to explain.
“I was sympathetic to what they were saying — that it was not conducive to learning,” he said. “But I couldn’t understand how it could be a distraction to the kids.”
Finally, Gary Sanden said, he was advised to get a letter from tribal leaders to explain the Native American tradition of wearing Mohawks.
“That’s like calling up the governor of our state,” Sanden said. “But I called and got the letter. My wife did too.”
Seneca Nation Tribal Councilor William Canella then wrote a letter to the school district’s superintendent.
“From past centuries to the modern era, Native boys have worn their hair in various lengths and styles to demonstrate their pride in their heritage,” Canella wrote. “It is common for Seneca boys to wear a Mohawk because after years of discrimination and oppression, they are proud to share who they are. It’s disappointing that your school does not view diversity in a positive manner, and it is our hope that Jakobe does not suffer from any discrimination by the school administration or faculty as a result of his hair cut.”
Sanden is a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians. His wife, Teyawnna Sanden, belongs to the Kaibab Band of Paiutes Indians. The couple lives in St. George, a city that sits near several Indian reservations — the Shivwits Band of Paiutes, less than 10 miles from the school, and the Kaibab Paiutes near the Utah-Arizona border.
Wilkey said in statement that the issue was resolved after the Seneca Nation of Indians provided information indicating that the hairstyle was considered a “cultural preference.”
“The student was not sent home or suspended from school,” he said.
Harrah, the Arrowhead principal, told the Salt Lake City Tribune that families’ cultures often clash with school policy and that it surprised her that the incident had gained national attention.
“It took about a half hour of my time,” she told the newspaper, adding: “There’s a protocol that we go through, and I felt like it was handled efficiently and that we respected their culture.”