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4-year-old boy faces discipline for having long hair, sparks school dress code battle

Parents are challenging the school's hair policy that that they feel is discriminatory.
School dress code controversy
Parents in Texas are challenging this school district's dress code.Courtesy of Randi Woodley
/ Source: TODAY

Michael Trimble, 4, was so excited to start school last month. So when it came time meet his teachers, Trimble's grandmother, Randi Woodley, made sure he looked especially adorable.

"He was dressed up cute, and had two long ponytails. Usually he just wears one but this was a special occasion, so I took more time on his hair," Woodley told TODAY Style.

After meeting with her grandson's teacher at Tatum Primary School in Tatum, Texas, Woodley was asked to visit the school's principal to discuss a potential dress code issue. "She told me his hair was too long and in order for him to come to this school, I have two choices: 1) cut it or 2) braid it and pin it up," she said.

All three of Woodley's sons attended school in the district before and she never encountered this rule, so she requested to meet with the superintendent, Dr. J.P Richardson, to discuss her concerns. "He’s a little boy. When he’s playing at recess, what if one of those bobby pins gets moved around and hurts him?" she said.

Woodley — who's had custody of her grandson since he was 4 months old — was given the same two options from the district's superintendent. "At that point, I asked him about transgender students and what happens with the males who wear long wigs. He then told me that the transgender students are protected by law, but that Tatum ISD has their own set of rules for other students," she said.

School dress code controversy
Michael Trimble's grandmother, Randi Woodley, says the 4-year-old was not allowed to wear his hair in a ponytail.Courtesy of Randi Woodley

Woodley was confused why transgender students and female students could wear their hair long, but her grandson could not. "The superintendent then told me if I was so passionate about it that I could put Michael in a dress and send him to school with long hair. But I would have to let him know that when he’s asked if he’s a boy, he has to say he’s a girl," she said. (The district denies this incident.)

School dress code controversy
A photo of Michael on the day teachers told his grandmother he was out of dress code.Courtesy of Randi Woodley

At that moment, Woodley vowed to fight the school's dress code policy, which reads: "No ponytails, ducktails, rat-tails, male buns, or puffballs are allowed on male students. ALL male hair of any type SHALL NOT extend below the top of a T-shirt collar."

After Woodley shared her story on Facebook, a woman named Rachel Ray in Philadelphia asked if she could create a petition on Trimble's behalf, and a movement started to form. So far, more than 9,000 people have signed the petition. Since her grandson started at the Head Start (preschool) program last month, Woodley has attended two school board meetings to speak on his and other students' behalf.

Kambry Cox also joined the movement after Tatum ISD school officials told her that her 5-year-old son, Kellan, a kindergartner, couldn't wear his dreadlocks in a ponytail.

"Kellan came home with a note in his behavior folder that stated 'Mrs Cox, Kellan is out of dress code today.' At that point I looked at what he was wearing closely and couldn’t understand the problem, so I immediately called his teacher. She informed me that there was a rule stating male students weren’t allowed to wear ponytails or 'man buns' as stated in the dress code. She also informed me that she had already spoken with the school principal before leaving the note in his folder," Cox told TODAY Style.

School dress code controversy
A photo of Kellan on the day his mother was informed he was violating the dress code.Courtesy of Randi Woodley

Cox then tried using headbands to keep hair out of her son's face, but Kellan found them painful. "Each day that I put them in his hair, he would come home with it in his pocket and say it was uncomfortable and tight and he didn’t understand the purpose," she said.

School dress code controversy
Cox and her son have joined Woodley in her fight to challenge the school's dress code.Courtesy of Randi Woodley

Kellan is proud of his hair, and Cox worries that banning certain hairstyles sends the wrong message.

"I think it’s extremely important to allow children to wear their hair as they please because it gives them a sense of importance and builds their self-esteem. Kellan chose his hairstyle and takes pride in it. Each time he notices growth in his hair, he brings it to my attention with a great big smile. He takes pride that his dreadlocks, or 'twists' as he refers to them, are growing longer and more beautiful as time passes," she said.

For now, Kellan is allowed to wear his hair in braids. So each morning, Cox tightly braids his twists to keep them out of his face.

School dress code controversy
The braided hairstyle Kellan has been wearing in recent weeks.Courtesy of Randi Woodley

At a special board meeting earlier this week, school officials and parents met to discuss concerns over the dress code policy, but, as of yet, there has been no resolution. In a statement first obtained by NBC affiliate KETK, superintendent Richardson said the following: “Recently, social media claims have been made that Tatum ISD’s hair code is racially discriminatory and that District administration suggested a student identify as the opposite sex for purposes of limiting the applicability of that policy. The District vehemently denies these claims.

"The District has implemented dress and grooming standards for many years. While the policy has evolved over time, the District has, and will continue to, ensure that it is applied to all students in a consistent and nondiscriminatory manner," the statement continues.

Cox is optimistic that local parents can enact change in the school's dress code policy. "I hope that when this ordeal is all over that every student who walks through the school doors of Tatum ISD will be treated equal, regardless of gender, income, skin color and language," she said.

And Woodley stands firm in her belief that the dress code policy is both dated and unreasonable: "We shouldn’t even be having this conversation. What does hair have to do with learning? All my grandson should be focused on is learning his ABCs and 123s."