It’s hard to say exactly when and where the high school season of Pomp and Circumstance became the season of Stuff and Nonsense.
Maybe it was when Austin Mendoza , a Tennessee honors student, was banned from his graduation ceremony after he missed a mandatory rehearsal because he had to go to work to help pay for college.
It could have been in Maine last year, when graduating senior Justin Denney was sent back to his seat with no diploma by the superintendent of schools after he impulsively bowed and blew a kiss to his family as he walked onto the stage.
Then there was Kaitlin Nootbaar, the valedictorian of Oklahoma’s Prague High School, who included the word “hell” in her speech. As a result, the school held back her diploma and demanded an apology.
And now we have Chelsey Ramer.
At last month’s commencement exercises at her private school in Alabama, she walked away diploma-less because she wore a feather along with the tassel on her cap. Ramer, it should be noted, is a Native American, a member of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. The feather, she said, was an important spiritual and cultural symbol of pride.
School officials didn’t see it that way. All they could see was that the feather violated a dress code prohibiting “extraneous items during graduation exercises unless approved by the administration.” Not only did they hold back her diploma and transcripts, they demanded that she pay a $1,000 fine.
Extraneous items, though, are in the eye of the beholder. If a feather is an extraneous item, what about other headwear that qualify as spiritual and cultural symbols? A yarmulka. A hijab. A turban.
Of course, there’s always that “slippery slope” thing. If you let a graduating student in Alabama wear a feather at commencement, the next one might show up wearing a Crimson Tide football helmet. Or, worse, an Auburn helmet.
Perhaps it’s all too easy to second-guess school administrators. They are, to be sure, faced with all sorts of tough decisions. But maybe they’re frequently guilty of taking the easy route, also.
Creating rules without thinking through how they will apply to individual situations provides an easy out for administrators, said attorney Jason Bach, whose Education Litigation Group represents students and teachers in cases like these.
In an online interview, he declared, “It’s convenient for the schools, who won’t have to make judgment calls if they have a rule they can apply brainlessly.” He attributes the application of zero-tolerance discipline, which has been increasing in recent years, to “institutional arrogance.”
Or, to put it another way, “Stuff and Nonsense.”