In response to requests from some graduating Laramie High School seniors, the Albany County School District No. 1’s school board is considering a new policy that would allow seniors to wear to their graduation ceremony “objects of cultural significance” and graduation cords recognizing a “significant achievement” in clubs that aren’t physically represented at the high school.
The proposed policy came after senior Hudda Herrera requested to wear eagle feathers and beadwork at the ceremony. Another senior, Isabel Polidora, had also asked to wear a graduation cord marking her achievement in Girl Scouts.
“It’s the next step onto your life, and I always pictured myself … with the beadwork and the feather in my cap,” Herrera said at a Wednesday work session of the school board.
His mother is Reinette Tendore, the Native American Program advisor at the University of Wyoming.
“Coming from the reservation, this is something that we always have done,” she told the board members at a Wednesday work session.
Tendore said there’s a growing influx of American Indian students and faculty to Laramie as a result of UW’s recent emphasis on making the university more attractive to students from the Wind River Indian Reservation.
With that, she said American Indian enrollment at ACSD No. 1 will also increase and LHS can expect more students will want to wear regalia.
“We plan on being part of this community for a long time,” she said.
As of fall 2018, the district had 42 American Indian or Alaska Native students, according to the Wyoming Department of Education.
Schools in Fremont County welcome students to wear regalia and decorate their mortarboards. Non-reservation high schools in Riverton, Lander and Pavillion also typically have drum groups perform, and the cultures of the reservation’s two tribes are even greater infused into graduation ceremonies of reservation’s four high schools.
Angela Jaime, UW’s director of American Indian studies, said \ACSD No. 1 would, however, be the “first school district to positively embrace this” by adopting a policy.
Tendore said she’s ultimately hoping to convince the Legislature to adopt a policy allowing graduates to wear regalia at any high school graduation ceremony in Wyoming.
School board member Tammy Johnson expressed concern about the board choosing what sort of ornamentation is allowed.
“My biggest concern is the First Amendment rights of students,” Johnson said. “If we allow some cultural expression and not others, then we have to slice-and-dice what’s ‘cultural expression.’ I think we have to be willing to allow a very broad swath. If we agree to this, we’re agreeing to allow many, many different cultural expressions to go across the stage. And I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t think we should be monitoring graduation.”
LHS Principal Chuck Kern said he wanted the board to give LHS guidance on what should be allowed at the ceremony.
He also expressed some concern that while Herrera’s “request is rather easy” to approve, he wonders if the new changes could lead to other students wanting to don offensive decorations by using the argument that those ornamentations are also “cultural.”
Jaime suggested the board could limit any ornamentation or accessories to “ethnic” expression, and ACSD No. 1 Superintendent Jubal Yennie said he’ll continue to tweak the draft before it comes up for first reading next week.
Johnson also expressed concern about the process administrators have taken when drafting the policy. Typically, policies are vetted through district committees. Johnson said she’d like a committee to also review the proposed policy so it doesn’t just accommodate the “narrow point of one group.”
Yennie said the district’s diversity task force is meeting next week, and that group could still be given the opportunity to review the policy.
The policy will be brought up for first reading at the May 8 board meeting. Assuming the board moves forward on the policy, it won’t make it through third reading by LHS’s May 24 ceremony to become an official school board decree.
However, Yennie said passing the policy through first reading would at least signal to LHS staff that American Indian regalia and club honors should be allowed.
“We don’t have a policy to prohibit these honor cords or Native American attire,” Yennie said.
While the board hasn’t had an explicit policy banning decoration caps and gowns, it’s long been the administrative practice at LHS not to allow decoration of mortarboards.
“The graduation ceremony is a dignified ceremony and celebration, and the graduation ceremony shall be under the direction of the building principal,” the proposed policy states. “High school graduates will wear traditional graduation attire — graduation cap and gown. High school graduates are not permitted to decorate or adorn the gown or the cap (mortarboard) except as otherwise described below: Objects of cultural significance (beadwork, feathers, etc.) will be permitted to be displayed on the graduation cap (mortarboard) to honor the unique cultural heritage of students including Native American students as long as the display comports with cultural tradition and reflects the respectful, dignified traditions of the graduation ceremony.”
The policy would also allow for graduation cords that “represent the highest level of achievement for scholastic performance at the high school level.”
The proposed policy would allow graduates to wear cords given out by clubs recognized as a Congressional Chartered Nonprofit Organization.
Currently there are about 100 nonprofits with that status, including Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Little League and FFA.
At an April 10 board meeting, Polidora said she was told by Kern a graduation cord provided by Girl Scouts also wouldn’t be allowed because the club is not school-affiliated.
Polidora, who’s currently working toward her Gold Award from the club, and other Girl Scouts then lobbied directly to the school board for a change.
“Although Girl Scouts is not a school club or sport, it has been a significant part of my academic career,” Polidora said last month. “High school graduation is not only an opportunity to be proud of one’s academic accomplishments, but it is a time to be proud of the contributions I have made to the community. The commitments I have made to organizations outside of Laramie High School should not be discounted because they weren’t directly school-related. When I graduate in May, I will not only be representing myself as a Laramie High School student, I will be representing myself as a member of this community. I feel that Laramie High School should allow me the same respect and recognition that my peers receive for all of our service, whether or not it occurred at school or in our community at large.”
Sally Leep, the CEO of Girls Scouts of Montana & Wyoming, also wrote a letter to the school board urging them to allow Polidora to wear a Girl Scout cord at graduation.