It’s not often that students outnumber adults at a school board meeting. But on Monday, more than two dozen teens turned out in South St. Paul, asking the board to let them show their colors at graduation.
Students from several groups at South St. Paul Secondary— including the Black Pride Organization, Comunidad de Latinos Unidos, the Women’s Society and the Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA), a group for LGBT students — want to wear sashes, also called stoles, to celebrate their identities.
Immigrants, gay students and students of color face extra obstacles during their education, said Jenaye Vergin, a junior and one of four students who addressed the board.
Allowing students to wear the special sashes would “give energy to a collective voice,” Vergin said. “I’m able to repurpose what was once an obstacle into a source of energy and pride.”
But change won’t come in time for this year’s graduation, set for June 6. Principal Chuck Ochocki said the district will take several months to examine the idea and issue recommendations this fall.
“Every policy or procedure we roll out can be in place for the next 100 years,” he said. “It’s not that I’m opposed. It’s that I want to make sure it’s right.”
Some other school districts, such as St. Paul, recently have allowed students to don so-called “identity adornments,” primarily multicolored stoles that hang down the front of graduation gowns. They must be preapproved, meet size requirements and cannot have sequins or glitter.
In South St. Paul, the students have gotten support and guidance from Jessica Davis, a math teacher and a finalist this year for Minnesota Teacher of the Year.
Davis said two graduating students last year, natives of Honduras, wore stoles to the graduation ceremony in Honduran colors with a family crest incorporated in the design. School officials made them remove the stoles, and Davis delivered the news.
“There’s a war going on in their country and they managed the accomplishment of graduating from high school,” Davis said “I’m so sad that one of their memories [of graduation] is wiping the tears away.”
She said the school has been slow to react to the students’ proposal, which they first presented to the administration in January.
“We were told a passive ‘no,’ ” she said. “They said we have to discuss it. But we are discussing it. Why not now?”
If they’re not allowed to don the sashes, some students have talked about wearing them anyway, said Naomi Gedey, a Black Pride Organization leader.
Gedey added that many immigrant students also hope to wear flags of their nations of origin.
Before Monday’s meeting, school board member Bill Arend said he would be glad to learn more about the issue.
“The information I have said that it goes against tradition. Well, tradition is an ongoing thing, correct?” he said. “It gives these kids some identity.”
Arend said students in the International Baccalaureate program already get to wear a different colored sash at graduation.
Gedey said she used to feel insecure as a black student because there weren’t many at school like her. When she saw her cousin graduate from college wearing a sash celebrating his ethnic pride, she decided that she wanted to do the same.
“We don’t have much for graduation — the only thing we can wear is like an academic sash or one of those ropes for GPA. Everything’s based on academics,” Gedey said.
At graduation meetings this year, she said students were told they couldn’t decorate their caps or add anything to their gowns. After talking to Ochocki last fall, she said, she wrote up a proposal at his suggestion.
“I don’t want to change tradition, I just want to add to it,” Gedey said. “South St. Paul’s not going to be the same forever.”
Minneapolis Public Schools pays for and provides sashes to graduates of certain programs, such as a college readiness program and Indian Education, said spokesman Dirk Tedmon. But there’s no official policy, and it’s up to each principal to decide whether to allow students to wear stoles in other cases, he said.
“I haven’t really heard anyone say, ‘That’s not allowed,’ ” Tedmon said. “Limiting that gets into some free-speech issues, so it’s pretty open.”
In the Anoka-Hennepin School District, administrators decide requests on a case-by-case basis and are “restrictive, somewhat, because of setting a precedent,” spokesman Jim Skelly said. He added that past requests for culturally specific sashes have been honored.
Arend said he’s still learning the details of the situation.
“This is a relatively new thing, and I give the kids credit,” Arend said. “If we’re here for the kids and the kids are saying, ‘This is what I want,’ why are we resisting?”