Native American Feather Sparks Graduation Debate: Schools' Tough Rules for Grads

This year, graduation has become a battleground for some school officials and students. With schools tightening restrictions on who gets to walk, seniors are fighting for their rights in the last hours of their high school careers.

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Take 17-year-old Chelsey Ramer. Her private school, Escambia Academy, is holding the Alabama grad's diploma and transcripts until she pays a $1,000 fine—all because she hung a lone eagle feather alongside her cap’s tassel during her May 23 commencement ceremony.

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Ramer, a member of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, told Indian Country Today Media that the feather was an important spiritual and cultural symbol of pride, and that she’d decided to wear it even after being warned not to by her then-headmaster, Betty Warren (who has since been replaced, though it’s unclear whether that was related to this incident). Escambia’s dress code prohibits “extraneous items during graduation exercises unless approved by the administration.”

But, Ramer said after the incident, “it was worth every penny of the thousand dollars. This is what I’ve been waiting on, and I feel like I have a right to wear it.” To the local WPMI-TV, she added, the situation felt like “discrimination.”

A receptionist answering the phone at Escambia Academy told Yahoo! Shine, “We have no comment.”

Other recent incidents seem just as extreme: In Tennessee, honors student Austin Mendoza was banned from his graduation ceremony after he missed a mandatory rehearsal because he had to go to work to help pay for college.

Texas straight-A senior Lauren Green, meanwhile, has been barred from taking part in her upcoming June 7 ceremony for allegedly drinking at her prom; she claimed the accusation wasn’t true and filed a lawsuit against the school, which was dismissed.

And in New Mexico, a transgender student was essentially pushed out of his commencement ceremony by being told he had to wear a white robe, for girls, instead of a black robe, for boys, at the private St. Pius X school. As a result, the student, Damian Garcia, chose to skip  the event. “I’m fully respecting this and myself by not walking and/or attending the ceremony at all,” he said in a Facebook post.

“When it comes to students expressing their First Amendment rights, disciplining students by not allowing them to graduate is unacceptable,” Gabe Rottman, legislative counsel for the ACLU, told Yahoo! Shine, adding that his office has seen an uptick in aggressive discipline in schools lately. “Not only is that punishment disproportionate to the crime, but the schools are missing out on an opportunity to teach students the value of freedom of expression.”

When it comes to freedom of expression cases in public schools, Rottman explained, students are usually ruled against if their speech is really disruptive, is particularly offensive or crude, or is presented as if the student’s expression is representative of the school. Cases in private schools are “way more complicated,” though, he noted.

“In general,” Rottman said, “overly punitive disciplinary policies tend to be counterproductive to good education.”

Having strict policies is a trend that’s been building for a while, though, as 2012 also brought a rash of pushed-out graduates—including Justin Denney, in Maine, whose superintendent sent him back to his seat with no diploma after he impulsively bowed and blew a kiss to his family. "There was no misbehavior. Showboating is not misbehavior," his mother, Mary Denney, had told WMTV News 8. "A bow, a kiss to your mom is not misbehavior. There was no need of my son not getting his diploma."

Also last year, in Cincinnati, high school senior Anthony Cornist was denied a diploma after his family’s “excessive” cheers apparently disrupted the graduation ceremony at Mt. Healthy High.  "I will be holding your diploma in the main office," read a letter from principal Marlon Styles, Jr., "due to the excessive cheering your guests displayed during the roll call." He then demanded 20 hours of community service from Cornist, who told the news station, “I did nothing wrong except walk across the stage.”

And then there was Kaitlin Nootbaar, the valedictorian of Oklahoma’s Prague High School, who dared include the word “hell” in her speech. As a result, the school held back her diploma and demanded an apology. “She earned that diploma. She completed all the state curriculum,” her father, David Nootbaar told KFOR-TV news. “In four years she has never made a B. She got straight A’s and had a 4.0 the whole way through.”

Attorney Jason Bach, whose Education Litigation Group represents students in Las Vegas, Chicago and Austin, attributes this sort of zero-tolerance discipline, which has been increasing in recent years, to "institutional arrogance." Creating rules without thinking through how they will apply to individual situations, he told Shine, provides an easy out for administrators. "It's convenient for the schools," he said, who "won't have to make judgment calls if they have a rule they can apply brainlessly."

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