A Tatum ISD mother and grandmother are planning to take the district to court, after the school board on Monday unanimously denied their grievances about the expulsion of their children over dress code issues.
The school board’s attorney, meanwhile, denied Monday that the children have technically been expelled and insisted, instead, that the issues at hand have to do with a grandmother’s manipulation of the Head Start system and a mother enrolling her child in a district in which he doesn’t live.
Edwina “Randi” Woodley and Kambry Cox first took issue with Tatum ISD over the dress code in August.
Cox’s son, Kellan, 5, was told he is out of dress code compliance because his hair is in dreadlocks.
Woodley’s grandson, Michael Trimble, 4, of whom she has custody, was told he is out of dress code compliance because of the length of his hair. Michael’s hair falls past his shoulders.
The children spent some time in in-school suspension and are no longer allowed to attend classes.
In September, Woodley and Cox hired a lawyer, Waukeen McCoy, who now lives in San Francisco but is from Tatum.
On Monday, the school board met with Woodley, Cox, McCoy, Superintendent J.P. Richardson, Tatum Primary School Principal Tamara Fite and the district’s attorney, Heather Castillo, for a hearing on each woman’s grievance. Castillo also is an attorney for Arlington ISD.
McCoy said the grievances come down to two main issues; the boys being expelled against the Texas Education Code Chapter 37, which says children under the age of 10 cannot be expelled, and the dress code being discriminatory based on race and gender.
Two hearings took place: one for Woodley and one for Cox.
Each grievance asked for the boys to be reenrolled in school and change the hair and grooming policy to be gender-neutral and not discriminatory based on sex or race.
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.”
McCoy said the policy targets black children because puffballs are a way black children wear their hair.
Brian Klosterboer, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Texas, also spoke during the grievances for Cox and Woodley.
“The district has a right to enforce its policies and to discipline students appropriately,” he said. “But now it has escalated far beyond that ... Students under the age of 10, there’s no legal basis to expel them at all. The district has used language such as “unenrolling” a student, but there is no legal difference between unenrolling them and completely denying them an education.”
Male students are held to a different standard than female students in the dress code, Klosterboer said. Even though historically in Texas the different standard has been allowed, courts are looking at the issue of dress codes more closely, he said. He said many school districts have adopted gender-neutral dress codes without issue.
If a hairstyle — such a puffballs — that only one race uses is banned, a court would look at that as a proxy for discrimination, he said.
“All of those issues, we would love to talk to you about at future board meetings, and we can work on changing those policies over time,” Klosterboer said. “The really urgent, immediate need we’re here for today is to try to get this 4-year-old student back in school.”
During Woodley’s hearing, Castillo said the district has been subject to ongoing attacks.
“The district has had to weather ongoing theatrics and attacks for months now,” she said. “Principal Fite, Dr. Richardson have had to endure repeated defamatory accusations on a nearly daily basis, accusations of isolating and harming a child, being discriminatory, on and on.”
Castillo said the district has not been able to respond to attacks because of confidentially concerns, but the guardians asked for the hearing to be public.
“These cases are not about expelling 4- and 5-year-olds,” she said. “No one’s been expelled. This is about Ms. Woodley’s manipulations to become eligible for the Head Start program, Ms. Woodley’s agreements to comply with the rules in order to get Head Start services ahead of other parents and children ahead of her on the waiting list. And, in regards to Ms. Cox, the basic rule that you need to be a resident of the district in order to go to school in the district.”
Castillo said when Woodley enrolled Michael in Head Start, she was told that, based on her income, Michael would likely be placed on a waiting list.
Woodley then asked what if she gave guardianship of Michael to her mother, Barbara Johnson, Castillo said. The employee said she would have to provide documentation of the change and her mother’s income, Castillo said.
She said Woodley returned to the school later that morning and presented a two-sentence document that said she was giving guardianship to her mother.
“These are not letters of guardianship and not at all a way to give guardianship of a child to another person,” Castillo said.
The documents were accepted by the employee, Castillo said, and Woodley was allowed to bypass the waiting list.
Castillo said Woodley’s public Facebook posts have been a “misinformation campaign” and Woodley “cannot get her story straight.”
Fite testified during Woodley’s hearing, during which she said Michael and Kellan were not mistreated on campus and were not left alone, as Woodley has claimed on social media. She said the students came to school out of dress code on Sept. 19, and Cox and Woodley were called. The women chose for both boys to remain in the office.
“The school was caught off guard by this decision, because normally parents wouldn’t choose to subject their children to a penalty based upon their own decisions. As a result, being unprepared, we did treat this as a normal day,” Fite said. “We had the teacher send work, and we had the boys do additional work as we would normally do with a temporary placement.”
By Monday morning, Sept. 23, Fite said she had a substitute teacher secured to be with the boys and redecorated the room to look like a classroom, let the boys have recess and spend time with their class.
Castillo said Kellan was unenrolled at Tatum ISD because Cox does not live in the district. She said he was not expelled from the district, because he is not a resident of the district.
Cox said her son spends a substantial amount of time with his grandmother, Mae Geter. He spends at least two or three nights a week with her, she said.
Because her husband works 13 hours away, Cox said her mother is her support system and she wanted to put Kellan in school close to Geter. He was registered at Cox’s mother’s address.
“They (the district) asked me to give them something with the address on there, and I had a bill with their address on there in my name that comes to their house,” Cox said referencing Geter’s address. “I gave it to the secretary, and she said, ‘Oh yes, that’s perfect.’ And I’ve never heard anything else about it until August. When I stood up for my son, and I stood up for what I believe in, that’s when he got expelled from school.”
McCoy said the reasons for expulsion from the district in the hearing are a pretext, or not the real reason. He said the women complained of discrimination to exercise their right of free speech, and the district retaliated.
For both hearings, the board did not deliberate.
After the hearing, McCoy said the district’s decision is “reprehensible.”
“Unfortunately, they didn’t follow the Texas Education Code at all. Kellan is 5 years old. Michael is 4 years old. And they just disregarded the law,” he said. “They suspended or expelled the students, when they didn’t have a legal basis to do so.”
The women will file a lawsuit against the district, McCoy said. The lawsuit will address the dress code and expulsion of the children.
“They put the parents on trial today, and there was no focus on the students themselves, on Michael and Kellan,” he said. “That’s unfortunate, that they didn’t really look at the real issue here, that these kids have been expelled from school. They’re not in a curriculum right now or any program.”
After the hearing, Woodley’s son, Larance Renard Hale, 25, was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana in a drug-free school zone. He was being held Monday on $1,500 bond in Rusk County Jail.
During a live video posted by Angela Thomas on Facebook, the officer said Hale’s vehicle was searched after he smelled the odor or raw marijuana. Randi Woodley was detained, but not arrested, during her son’s arrest because the officer said she was interfering.