FORT COVINGTON, N.Y. – Aroniakeha Elijah, 17, a junior at Salmon River High School, returned to regular classes May 15 after being suspended for violating the school district’s “no bandana rule.”
Elijah was completely segregated from his peers at the school for wearing a red headband as part of his traditional Haudenoshaunee rite of passage, but school officials considered it to be in violation of its rules prohibiting gang-like symbols and the wearing of headgear in the classroom. Elijah was asked to remove the headband and received the punitive in-school suspension for choosing to fulfill his religious obligation.
During the suspension, he received no regular instruction, preparation for the New York State Regents Examinations, and was suspended from the track and lacrosse teams preventing his consideration for college athletic scholarships.
Becket Fund for Religious Liberty attorney Derek Gaubatz and Manhattan attorney Robert Greene intervened in the matter at the request of Elijah’s grandfather Jake Swamp, a chief at the St. Regis Mohawk community. They met with school district officials on May 14 and immediately negotiated an agreement that included Elijah’s return to regular classes, tutoring to make up for the nearly three months without instruction, and a concession to let him wear the religious headband.
“When we went up there we actually met in that room where Elijah served his suspension,” said Gaubatz in an interview with Indian Country Today. “It is a little room at the back of the library with no windows.”
Elijah could not be reached for comment on the conditions of his suspension, but Salmon River School District Superintendent Glenn R. Bellinger said the suspension did not take place in a room with no windows and was not motivated by any kind of discrimination.
According to Bellinger, the “no bandana” rule resulted from a situation that took place at the district’s junior high school approximately 18 months ago when students were wearing the bandanas in gang-like behaviors. He said the district needed proof that Elijah was wearing the headband as part of his religious beliefs to gain an exception to that rule to prevent further misconduct by other students.
“He went through hoops and when he showed up and proved to us that it was part of his religion we said he could wear it for religious purposes only,” said Bellinger, who was not present for most of the Elijah suspension because he was recovering from bypass surgery. “We have to have proof to wear headgear in the classroom. It would be the same if we had Jewish people here.”
Gaubatz expressed serious concern over the amount of time it took to resolve the issue when he spoke with ICT and said the suspension was “shameful” and unnecessary considering the fact the school district had never questioned Elijah’s motives for wearing the headband.
“It is a sad day in America when a school sends one its students into solitary confinement for three and a half months for asserting his constitutional rights,” said Gaubatz in a May 14 press release.
Bellinger said there was no good reason why it took so long to resolve the school district’s dispute with Elijah and end his suspension. He said that ironically the delay was the result of not being able to get the Mohawk chiefs and elders together to provide the proof needed to lift the suspension and added there will be no repercussions for Elijah for his actions.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is based in Washington and is a non-profit organization funded by private grants and donations. The Becket Fund is committed to the free and public practice of an individual’s religion and guaranteeing access to government services and facilities to all regardless of religion.