Sofia Oliveira, an elder at East Pennsboro Area High School, was hoping to use her upcoming graduation ceremony on June 4 to celebrate her dual legacy.
Oliveira had planned to wear a belt adorned with the American and Brazilian flag over her dress during the graduation ceremony. She identifies as both white and Latin and grew up in a house with parents who spoke English, Portuguese and Spanish.
“My father was born and raised in Brazil until he was about 19,” Oliveira said, adding that her father came to the United States when her grandfather was stationed here as a member. of the Brazilian Air Force. “And so I have this direct inheritance of Brazilian customs from my father.”
But the school district will not allow him to wear his personalized belt. After bringing his plan to the attention of the school principal, Jonathan Bucher, he was told that the only scarves allowed for the graduation ceremony were related to the school’s academic activities, such as the National Honors. Society.
His petitions to the district have raised questions about dress codes, graduation policies and high school tradition. And officials from the East Pennsboro-area School District and other schools in the area recognize that dress standards for events like graduation can be difficult to manage.
The issue goes way beyond that one belt and that one request, according to Dr. Donna Dunar, superintendent of schools for the East Pennsboro School District. Dunar admitted that making the call was “not an easy thing” and added that Oliveira was “fantastic, a great student”. But she stood behind the principal’s initial rejection of the belt.
Allowing Oliveira’s belt would open the door to a number of similar requests, Dunar said, with unlimited posts. Beyond cultural symbols alone, she said, there would be all kinds of political, even potentially offensive, demands. The school should also answer questions about appropriate sizes or define all possible shapes from blankets to bandanas.
Dunar said Oliveira was welcome to wear her belt under her gown during the ceremony and wear it at all other times during the graduation ceremony or to pose with her in photos – but not during the ceremony herself. even.
“Basically I said, ‘You know we wish we could say yes,’” Dunar said. “However, we have to be consistent, and I’m sure you can understand the need to be consistent.”
Oliveira said her cultural heritage made her who she was and she hoped to celebrate them both upon graduation from high school with the belt. She added that her heritage has sometimes been called into question “because some people may see it as I’m not dark enough to be associated with Latino culture, while neither am I entirely white to be considered 100. % white. “
And when her request was denied, Oliveira replied that the choice of the neighborhood was hypocritical. East Pennsboro recently signed up for the No Place For Hate program with the Anti-Defamation League, and yet Oliveira said, “We don’t allow students to show how there is no hate, how there is. diversity. ”
“I assumed that because we were also able to decorate our cap to any capacity we wanted, and they didn’t check those caps until we were already at graduation, that I could wear a belt that wouldn’t. It wasn’t provocative and didn’t hurt in school, ”Oliveira said.
“He only represented who I am and where I come from. It doesn’t hurt at school. It doesn’t hurt anyone. If anything, it’s promoting diversity in our school.
The policy is not specific
Oliveira looked at the school’s dress code and graduation policy and found nothing to say that such a belt would go against those policies. Sofia’s mother Mary Oliveira did her own research on the school’s dress code policy after her daughter raised the issue.
“The manager contacted me the next morning and we had a conversation about it,” Mary Oliveira said. “He told me both, and then in an email exchange with our superintendent, that no, there is no written policy or procedure to deny his request. But past practice has never included such a belt and they are not inclined to endorse it. “
Sofia then continued to move up the chain to the school board, presenting her case for the belt at a recent school board meeting.
“If we approve it as an exception, we’ll have to approve every student that comes and asks us to do something different,” said Mary Oliveira. “Otherwise, we could be prosecuted for discrimination, and we just don’t want to change the practice as it is.”
The policy on graduation dress was not expressly written, Dunar said.
“[The principal] was right to deny the request because his request is outside our process, ”said Dunar. “And really, this is past practice. So when you ask “Do you have a policy?”, Yes, we have a graduation policy. It is not explicit about what you can wear and what you cannot wear. It’s really what I would call a bit general.
These general guidelines ask students to “dress appropriately,” Dunar said. The measurements require a standardized cap and gown, which Dunar adds also helps level the playing field for their students. Flashy accessories or decorations are not a factor for families who may struggle to afford them, she said.
These generalities, said Sofia Oliveira, are not only stifling for her, but for any student wanting to speak out.
“It’s frustrating because they keep saying that ‘in the past it was not worn’,” Sofia said. “Yeah, maybe people before didn’t want to wear it, but times have changed. The period we graduate from is different than it was 10 years ago. It won’t be the same. The company is not the same as it was 10 years ago. So I think we need to have a more open mindset towards all the students who want to show their differences and their diversities within our school district.
There are a certain level of custom touches that East Pennsboro students are currently allowed, the superintendent said.
“We have two dresses, there is black and white,” Dunar said. “And students can actually go one or the other. And it’s nowhere in the writing, but it’s tradition and again, it’s a past practice: Our students at East Pennsboro have traditionally decorated their boards with mortar. This is how they express themselves. Now, many schools do not. They do not allow any type of expression.
And due to the pandemic, students are also allowed to wear any type of mask they like, with any decoration, “as long as they’re not of an offensive nature,” Dunar said.
At the end of studies, schools often remain “ formal ”
Most schools do not have a formal procedural policy on graduation attire, but their advice on graduation ceremonies usually falls under a different set of standards. This is because graduation ceremonies are not mandatory. Students graduate and graduate regardless of whether or not they attend at the start.
Many schools in the area only allow embellishments to their cap and dress with medals and honors associated with the school.
“We want to maintain the formal expectation of the ceremony,” said Tracy Panzer, spokesperson for Cumberland Valley. “We try to keep it as formal as possible. Beyond the red and white cap and dress, they are allowed to wear school-issued cords and stoles for awards and participation.
“I can understand why [East Pennsboro] would take that position, ”said Steve Kirkpatrick, Superintendent of the Northern York County School District. “The graduation ceremony is less about the traits and legacy of the students than it is about this class, this group of students and the success of university studies. When we talk about what kids should wear, badges should be associated with school or extracurricular activities. It must be associated with the school. “
In general, school districts can establish dress protocols for cap and dress – as long as they apply to everyone, said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.
“Districts can set a protocol and determine what can be worn on the gown, as long as they treat all children the same,” DiRocco said. “If they let 10 kids wear a belt but no one else can, then you’ve got a problem.”
As for the alternatives offered by the neighborhood, Oliveira said she hopes to decorate her mortar cap with symbols for HACC, where she will attend college in the fall.
But she said “I’m not 100% sure what I’ll do on graduation day” beyond being certain that she will still attend the ceremony on June 4th.
“Historically, we are not a family to ruffle feathers, nor seek moments of glory for anything,” said Mary Oliveira.
“But it’s something that makes sense to my daughter and doesn’t hurt anyone else, and those are two principles that we’ve clung to over the last seven to ten days as it has evolved. And when I asked my daughter on the morning of the board how far she wanted us to go, without any hesitation, she said, “Mom, this is not about me anymore.” This is the next student who comes after me with a similar desire.