In a last-minute reversal of principal Stephen Nixon’s recent decision regarding appropriate graduation wear, the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School district committee voted last night to allow seniors, Brazilian and otherwise, to wear personalized scarves over their graduation gowns.
The vote followed an impassioned speech from former high school student and recent Emory University graduate Alex Parker.
“This small garment is standard across institutions of higher learning, like the one I graduated from about a month ago. African American students, Asian students, Native American students, and many more wore these scarves above their robes proudly, not to detract from the unity of my class, but to commemorate it,” said Mr. Parker at the meeting.
The issue arose several weeks ago, when a group of some 10 Brazilian students slated to graduate with the class of 2010 asked permission to wear scarves in the colors of the Brazilian flag at graduation. Mr. Nixon denied that request, citing a school policy that barred students from wearing personal items at the ceremony. Later, two of those students told the Gazette that they planned to wear the scarves despite the threat of penalty from the administration. Students Andora Aquino and Fillipi Gomes said that other student groups had been allowed to wear similar garments at past ceremonies, and Brazilian students should be granted the same right.
At last night’s meeting, Mr. Nixon stood by his decision. “This isn’t something new. Students are denied requests to wear stoles on an annual basis,” he said. “One of my predecessors made an exception several years ago to a group,” he said, adding that he did not, however, support that decision. He also said he would not support the Brazilian students in their vow to go ahead with wearing the scarves.
“My attachment in this graduation is to the other 157 kids, not the 10 that are going to do it their way,” said Mr. Nixon. “If anyone disobeys the rules that are in the policy for graduation, they will not receive a diploma,” pending disciplinary action, he said.
But the school committee decided otherwise.
“If we allow the Native Americans to do that and we’re allowing the NAACP kids do that, then what is the problem in having the Brazilian kids do the same thing, if it’s not taking away from the whole academic performance?” said member Robert Tankard. “We’re causing more of an issue than we need to cause here. I say, let them go and put it around their neck.”
“If they want to wear those colors, I’d love to see who was glad that they were able to graduate from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, knowing how far they’ve come,” said committee member Roxanne Ackerman.
Member Leslie Baynes said that there was a time in America when immigrants felt they needed to hide their countries of origin. He said as an immigrant himself from the U.K., he was happy to see students excited to celebrate their cultural heritage.
Assistant superintendent Laurie Halt said she remembered wearing a floral lei, made by her mother, to her own graduation ceremony from the regional high school in 1981. “It meant so much to me,” she said, adding that seniors graduating this year should be awarded the same freedom to express their individuality. “I think this is a teachable moment,” she said. “This is their graduation and I think it’s very important that their voices are all collectively heard.”
Superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss stood by principal Nixon’s decision. He said that any exception to the school policy could result in negative repercussions down the road. “I think we need to realize what we’re doing. If a Nazi shows up tomorrow, whether we like it or not we would be hard-pressed legally to not allow him to wear an arm band. Once you open the door, it stays open. That’s my only concern,” said Dr. Weiss.
School committee chairman Priscilla Sylvia said she also worried about potential backlash from a community that has become bitterly divided on the issue. “I’m concerned about what others might do,” she said.
But Mr. Baynes said the school committee could not be intimidated by ignorance and threats.
The committee finally voted to overrule the original decision. In a five to three vote, the school committee opted to stand by the small group of Brazilian high school students. The motion was to allow students to wear stoles or scarves at graduation without penalty of a two-day suspension.
Those in favor were Ms. Ackerman, Mr. Baynes, Mr. Tankard, Susan Parker and Lisa Reagan. Those opposed were Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter, Priscilla Silvia and Colleen McAndrews.
As Mr. Parker put it:
“Our Brazilian students are proud, hard-working, brilliant and here to stay. Thus, it is time we as a community garner the respect for them that they deserve.”
Graduation is Sunday, June 13 at 1:30 p.m. at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs.