SANTA FE – An appeals court ruling has revived an anti-discrimination lawsuit accusing an Albuquerque teacher of cutting off one Native American girl's hair and asking another if she was dressed as a “bloody Indian” during class on Halloween.
Outrage over the girls' treatment propelled legislation in New Mexico and beyond that prohibits discrimination based upon hairstyle and religious head garments.
The American Civil Liberties Union's lawsuit accused Albuquerque Public Schools and a teacher of discrimination and fostering a hostile learning environment. ACLU of New Mexico Deputy Director Leon Howard said the ruling affirms that public schools are subject to anti-discrimination protections in the New Mexico Human Rights Act.
The appellate ruling validates that all “students must feel safe at school and confident that their culture, history, and personal dignity are valued and respected by the public schools they attend,” Howard said in a statement.
A lower court had determined that a public high school does not qualify as a “public accommodation” under the state's civil rights law. The appellate ruling returns the lawsuit to state district court for a hearing on its merits.
“If a public secondary school official in their official capacity were to refuse services to an individual based on the individual’s race, religion, or sexual orientation, then the New Mexico Human Right Act would surely apply,” Appeals Court Judge J. Miles Hanissee wrote.
Albuquerque Public Schools spokeswoman Monica Armenta said the district is considering options to appeal.
The lawsuit alleges that English teacher Mary Jane Eastin dressed up as a voodoo witch on Halloween in 2018 and initiated a game in which she would ask students questions and reward those who answered correctly with marshmallows while giving dog food to those who didn't.
At some point, Eastin asked a Native American student whether she liked her braids and then cut off about three inches with scissors, sprinkling the hair on her desk, the suit alleges.
The suit says Eastin also asked another student, plaintiff McKenzie Johnson, 16, if she was dressed as a “bloody Indian.” Johnson's mother later told reporters her daughter was dressed for Halloween as Little Red Riding Hood, with a red paw mark on her face. Johnson, who is Navajo, said she no longer felt welcome at school.
The school district’s superintendent publicly apologized and told parents Eastin would not return to Cibola High School.
Johnson called the ruling a breakthrough for Indigenous students and others.
“We are surrounded by Native communities,” she said in a statement. “School staff at all levels need to understand our culture and our history so that what happened in my classroom never happens again.”
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed legislation in 2021 that prohibits discrimination, discipline or disparate treatment of students based on hair style, religious headdress or culture.
The U.S. House endorsed an unsuccessful bill last year largely in response to bias Black people can face over their hairstyles in society, school and the workplace.
In 2021, the father of a 7-year-old Michigan girl whose hair was cut by a teacher without her parents’ permission filed a $1 million lawsuit against the school district, a librarian and a teacher’s assistant. The lawsuit alleged racial discrimination and rights violations against the biracial girl.
Johnson is represented by Parnall & Adams Law and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.