MVRHS principal stands by graduation attire policy

High school students in traditional caps and gowns wait to receive their diplomas at graduation ceremonies held in the Tabernacle in June. — File photo by Susan Safford

A controversy blossomed at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) after principal Stephen Nixon refused a request by a group of students that they be allowed to wear decorative scarves in the colors of Brazil’s flag, at high school graduation exercises June 13.

Mr. Nixon said in a phone call Tuesday that he refused the request, based on the school’s longstanding prohibition against wearing decorative items on graduation gowns.

An article in Tuesday’s Vineyard Gazette reported that a group of 10 Brazilian students who are about to graduate wrote to the school administration several weeks ago, requesting permission to wear the scarves.

Mr. Nixon told The Times Tuesday that he has not seen a letter from the students and that the scarf question came up in a meeting with one student a few weeks ago. He said he explained to the student that his answer was no, because the high school only allows academic-related items, such as a National Honor Society cowl or pin, to be worn on a graduation gown.

“I just explained what the school’s policy was, and that as much as I understood the connection to their home country, there are other students that go to the high school that aren’t from the United States, and we have never done anything that attaches itself to nationalities or ethnic groups or something that represents a country,” Mr. Nixon said.

“I did say that we want our students to celebrate and be happy, and collectively we’re all high school people, and that’s what we’re celebrating,” he added.

Since the National Honor Society members are allowed to wear pins, Mr. Nixon said he suggested as a compromise that the students wear Brazilian flag pins.

After his initial discussion with the one student about why the scarves would not be allowed, Mr. Nixon said he recently learned from a faculty member that some of the students were talking about wearing them anyway.

In response, he asked the two students he knew were spearheading the scarf campaign, whose names he declined to give, to come to his office to discuss the issue.

Since one was absent, Mr. Nixon said he met again with the same student he first talked to and reiterated the school’s policy against decorating or adding clothing items to graduation attire, other than the compromise he’d offered of a Brazilian flag pin.

Some of the students quoted in the Vineyard Gazette article this week said they intend to go ahead with wearing the scarves.

“I haven’t spoken with them since the article came out this morning, so I could not tell you if in actuality they are going to attempt or not attempt to wear these things, or whether they have rejected the idea of wearing a pin,” Mr. Nixon said Tuesday.

“As a matter of fact, a student did say if they had the scarves or shawls with them, that they wanted to pose for a picture after graduation for the newspaper, and I have no problem with that,” he added.

Mr. Nixon’s refusal of the students’ request to wear their scarves came as a surprise, according to the Gazette report, because in the past African American students and members of the Wampanoag Tribe have been allowed to wear symbols of their cultures at graduation.

Mr. Nixon confirmed that the school’s Young Brothers to Men group did receive permission years ago from a former principal to wear shawls made in Africa with their graduation gowns.

“Unfortunately, that was one exception that was made years ago, and it puts it in a new light now that it’s something that we’ll probably have to review in the future,” Mr. Nixon said.

As for Wampanoag students wearing items related to their heritage, Mr. Nixon said, “I don’t know where that came from. I even checked with [guidance director] Mike McCarthy on that, and he’s not aware of anything that we’ve been asked to do for them.”

Students are informed about the rules for graduation attire during rehearsals, Mr. Nixon said.

“But there are kids who have come up on an annual basis, wanting to wear things because they’re proud of where they’re going to school or what they’re going to be doing, in the military or whatever, and we have consistently said no,” he said.

For those who think the current graduation dress code is unfair and try to defy it, Mr. Nixon warned there would be consequences.

“Our discipline is in effect right up until the point when students officially receive their diplomas,” he said. “And so if there is any discipline infraction at graduation, the policy is, we just withhold the diploma until the discipline infraction is served or met.”

Mr. Nixon said he would be the one to determine the penalty for any infractions.

“It’s always been that as much as graduation day is a fun and celebratory day, it’s a solemn day also, and we don’t want to make light of it,” he said. “These kids worked hard to get where they’re going, and there is some sense of decorum to it.”