A sharply divided Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) District committee voted Monday to change the rules for graduation attire, to allow Brazilian graduates to wear scarves in their native country’s colors with their gowns, when they receive diplomas in formal graduation ceremonies Sunday.
The vote set aside a policy principal Stephen Nixon had explained and enforced earlier this month when he met with several Brazilian students, who had asked permission to wear the scarves. Mr. Nixon told the students that wearing decorative items on graduation gowns would not be allowed. Mr. Nixon and superintendent of schools James Weiss opposed the school committee’s action.
The decision to upend Mr. Nixon’s ruling came in the absence of any formal request by any group, including the concerned students, and without the public notice and consultation that normally precedes school committee votes. The agenda for Monday’s meeting did not call for a discussion of graduation attire. No students or teachers were present for the discussion.
Alex Parker of Chilmark, a 2006 MVRHS graduate and recent graduate of Emory University, was present, and he read aloud, during the time period allotted for public comment, a letter he had written.
Mr. Parker, the son of school committee member Susan Parker, who attended the meeting and voted to reverse the principal’s decision, said he became distraught after he read about the issue on the front page of the Vineyard Gazette, which first highlighted the issue.
“We live in the land of the free, in the best country in the world, and part of what makes the United States so great is that it is well within students’ constitutional rights as graduates from this public school to wear a small scarf to highlight their graduating class and their culture,” Mr. Parker told the committee.
Following a lengthy and emotional debate, Roxanne Ackerman of Aquinnah moved “to allow students to wear stoles at graduation without a two-day suspension.”
Ms. Ackerman, Ms. Parker, Leslie Baynes of Edgartown, Robert Tankard of Tisbury, and Lisa Regan of Oak Bluffs voted in favor.
Jeffrey Manter of West Tisbury, Priscilla Sylvia of Oak Bluffs, and Colleen McAndrews of Tisbury voted against the motion.
“I hope it works,” Ms. Sylvia said following the vote.
Asked about the school committee’s decision in a phone call Tuesday, Mr. Weiss said his concern about changing the rules for graduation attire had nothing to do with the Brazilian community.
“I think they should be able to, in some way, shape or form, acknowledge their heritage.” Mr. Weiss said. “What we need to be careful of is not opening up a limited forum, so that everyone can do anything they want. That will in the future make graduation, I think, a less formal, a less traditional type of ceremony.”
Had the group of students or their academic advisor come to the school committee with their request to wear the scarves, Mr. Weiss said the committee could have voted very specifically to allow the students to do something special without causing graduation to become an open forum. None of the students nor a faculty advisor attended Monday’s meeting.
Mr. Weiss said he hopes the high school’s ceremony, which has managed to escape the craziness seen at other high schools and colleges, is not affected at all by the new rule on attire and remains as traditional as it has been in the past.
“But clearly the school committee has spoken, and we will honor their request and move forward,” he said.
Mr. Weiss added that he also plans to suggest that Mr. Nixon form a committee and include the school committee in coming up with a set of practices and procedures for graduation in the future.
In a follow-up phone call with Mr. Nixon on Tuesday, the principal said he would inform seniors about the change in the rules at graduation rehearsal the next day.
“It’s my understanding any student can wear a scarf or stole if it represents their heritage,” Mr. Nixon said of the new rule. “And that’s the information I’m going to pass onto the kids. Anything beyond that, we would take on a case-by-case basis, I would imagine.”
Mr. Parker’s leap into local school politics came while he is home on a visit. In a phone call yesterday, Mr. Parker said he looked at the committee agenda and saw nothing about an issue he considered important.
“That was the impetus for me to draft the letter, around 5 o’clock, for the meeting,” he told The Times.
Mr. Parker said that his experience as president of the high school junior class and as a member of the soccer team brought him into a lot of contact with Brazilian students.
Mr. Parker said he visited the high school Tuesday and Brazilian students were very happy with what he had done. He credited social studies/history department head Elaine Weintraub, who has spoken in favor of the Brazilian students’ efforts, as being instrumental in working with the group who requested permission to wear scarves.
Mr. Parker suggested The Times should follow up with any other questions with the Brazilian students, not Ms. Weintraub, and offered some words of advice. “But if you speak with them, I would advise against quoting them directly, because they may be uncomfortable with that,” he said.
Committee members divided
Mr. Parker’s concern for the comfort of students who might be interviewed did not extend to school committee members Monday night.
After Mr. Parker finished reading his letter, school committee members clamored to respond.
Vice chairman Priscilla Sylvia, who ran the meeting in the absence of chairman Susan Mercier, insisted the committee members stick to the agenda and discuss the matter under “old/new business.”
“Over the years many of us forget how we got here,” Mr. Tankard said, opening the scarf issue discussion.
Mr. Tankard, a former school principal and coach, said he found it difficult to deny Brazilian students the right to wear scarves if Native American students and NAACP students were allowed to do the same thing.
“Let them wear their colors; that’s what America is all about,” said Mr. Baynes, who emigrated to the United States years ago from the United Kingdom.
Ms. McAndrews said the issue for her was that the scarves would differentiate one group of students on a day when everyone should come together.
“They should all be proud of where they come from,” she said. “It’s a Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School graduation.
After listening to the discussion, Ms. Reagan said she changed her opinion in favor of allowing the scarves.
Although Mr. Baynes said he agreed the change in graduation attire rules might not be greeted favorably in the community and set a troublesome precedent, he added, “I think it’s a question about what we’re about in this country.”
Ms. Sylvia reminded everyone that the school committee generally has nothing to do with school procedures and does not micro-manage how administrators carry out those procedures. She also pointed out that the rules regarding graduation attire are not school policy, as referenced by some committee members. The All-Island School Committee through a formal public process decides school policies.
The committee’s decision
After thanking Mr. Nixon for describing his “lengthy concerns,” Ms. Ackerman said she would like to see the Brazilian students wearing their colors and showing they are proud of where they’ve come from, without penalty.
“Celebrating your heritage is different than wearing whatever you want,” said Ms. Parker, who had seconded Ms. Ackerman’s motion.
Ms. Parker was careful to point out that any decision made by the school committee to change rules about graduation attire did not reflect negatively on Mr. Nixon’s recent actions as an administrator, since he was enforcing rules he “inherited” when he became principal.
While committee member Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter agreed that the Brazilian students should display their colors proudly, he said he would vote against Ms. Ackerman’s motion because the school committee was responding emotionally and needed to think about the issue more carefully.
Ms. Sylvia also objected to the school committee’s lack of public process in changing the rules and said she wished the Brazilian students had made their request to the school committee a month ago.
Rules and consequences
In his comments to the committee, Mr. Nixon carefully described how the scarf issue developed, the school rules on which he based his decision, and his offer to allow the students to wear Brazilian flag pins as a compromise.
“The dress rules for graduation have been the same for the 12 years I’ve been at the high school,” Mr. Nixon said.
The issue is nothing new, he added. Students make requests to wear stoles or decorative items on an annual basis. For example, last year, some students going into the U.S. Army wanted to wear camouflage-print scarves.
The answer then, as now, was no, Mr. Nixon said. He did not receive any other special requests other than the one from the Brazilian students this year.
When asked about the consequences for graduating seniors who flaunt the dress code, Mr. Nixon said the penalty would be an in-school suspension for two days.
“My attachment in this graduation is to the other 157 kids, not the 10 that are going to do it their way,” he said. “I won’t yank them out and ruin everyone’s day.”
Instead, since students are handed blank diplomas onstage and receive the real ones after graduation, those who misbehave would not receive theirs until after disciplinary action was taken.
“If you want to turn around and say students can wear whatever they want to wear, be careful, because we will have the potential for something disruptive,” he cautioned the school committee.
Throughout the discussion, Mr. Weiss strongly supported his principal and warned the committee not to make an exception to the graduation dress code for just one group of students.
“If we establish a limited open forum, we put ourselves in a difficult spot for someone to come forward and wear something offensive,” he said.
As the committee appeared to draw closer to a decision, Mr. Weiss was blunt: “If a Nazi shows up tomorrow, whether we like it or not, we would be hard-pressed legally to keep him or her from wearing an armband.”
Despite Mr. Weiss’s and Mr. Nixon’s concerns, Ms. Parker and Mr. Tankard said they had confidence graduating seniors would dress appropriately.
From simmer to boil
The graduation attire question was raised when students approached Mr. Nixon. It was brought to a boil in the Island newspapers.
Several weeks ago, Mr. Nixon refused a request from a group of about 10 students that they be allowed to wear decorative scarves in the colors of Brazil’s flag at high school graduation exercises on June 13.
In an earlier conversation with The Times, Mr. Nixon explained that he based his decision on the high school’s existing graduation procedures, which include a rule against decorating or adding clothing items to graduation gowns other than academic-related pins or cowls, such as those from the National Honor Society.
Mr. Nixon said he knew of only one exception to the dress rules that had been made years ago. A previous principal gave permission to the school’s Young Brothers to Men group, whose members are predominantly African-American, to wear stoles made in Africa with their graduation gowns. A few of the group’s Native American members also wore stoles.
Since the National Honor Society members are allowed to wear pins, Mr. Nixon suggested the Brazilian students wear a Brazilian flag pin as a compromise.
He said he heard nothing further from the students or about the issue until he read a story published in the June 1 issue of the Gazette that reported some of the students planned to wear the scarves at graduation anyway.
Mr. Nixon said he had never seen a letter the Gazette reported the students had sent to the administration.
On June 4, the Gazette published an editorial that chided Mr. Nixon for refusing the Brazilian students’ request and took aim at web commentators critical of the students.
“His choice has turned the students’ teacup request into a tempest,” the editorialist wrote. “With a sometimes mob-like tea party mood arising in the country, this community needs a principal who will lead wisely with courage and perspective.”