A reality based independent journal of observation & analysis, serving the Flathead Valley & Montana since 2006. © James Conner.

7 June 2017 — 0529 mdt

Authoritarian educators violate student’s civil rights at FHS graduation


At Flathead High School’s graduation ceremony last Friday, a graduation official ordered FHS senior Zephrey Holloway not to wear his hand painted mortarboard honoring his Blackfeet cultural heritage (Interlake | Beacon). Although Holloway used his smartphone to show the administrator the text of SB-319, Montana’s new law authorizing modified mortarboards such as Holloway’s, his attempt to educate the ignorant administrator failed.

Given the choice of wearing a standard issue mortarboard or being banished to the bleachers as a spectator, Holloway donned the standard mortarboard and joined his classmates. If he was photographed accepting his diploma, he was photographed wearing a standard issue mortarboard, not the Blackfeet honoring mortarboard his grandmother painted for him.

Flathead High’s principal, Peter Fusaro, later apologized for the violation of Holloway’s civil rights — but that apology is an empty gesture that does not redress the injustice. Here’s the salient section of the law that graduation officials considered optional instead of mandatory:

Section 1. Tribal regalia and objects of cultural significance — allowed at public events. (1) The purpose of this section is to help further the state’s recognition of the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians and the state’s commitment to preserving the American Indians’ cultural integrity as provided in Article X, section 1(2), of the Montana constitution.

(2) A state agency or a local government may not prohibit an individual from wearing traditional tribal regalia or objects of cultural significance at a public event.

(3) For purposes of this section, the following definitions apply:

(a) “Individual” means a human being regardless of age.

(b) “Local government” has the meaning provided in 2-2-102.

(c) “Public event” means an event held or sponsored by a state agency or a local government, including but not limited to an award ceremony, a graduation ceremony, or a public meeting.

(d) “State agency” has the meaning provided in 1-2-116.

Seven members of the Flathead’s legislative delegation voted for SB-319. The other seven, all Republicans, voted against it.

And here’s FHS Principal Peter Fusaro’s 5 June statement:

Flathead High School has allowed students to wear tribal regalia and objects of cultural significance to express their indigenous heritage during commencement exercises. As part of our 2017 graduation ceremony, a student was allowed to display an eagle feather as part of his graduation attire. The same student was not permitted to wear a cap that included culturally significant artwork expressing their indigenous heritage. This decision was based on a graduation provision that does not permit students to use “tape, glitter, leis, bouquets, or any other adornments” on their caps and gowns. The application of this provision in this situation was in error. The School District and administration of Flathead High School regret the misapplication of this policy and has extended apologies to the student, their family, and their grandmother, who painted the cap. Although school administrators were generally aware of SB 319 prior to commencement exercises, the School District has taken steps to ensure that Montana law authorizing expressions of indigenous heritage is honored fully in the future. [Highlighting by FM.]

My sincerest apologies,
Peter J Fusaro
Principal, FHS

A handsome apology? Yes. But also a breathtaking admission of due diligence not done, and of an insouciant contempt for a student’s civil rights. Not only did FHS officials violate a state law of which they were “generally aware,” they violated their own established policy of allowing students “…to wear tribal regalia and objects of cultural significance to express their indigenous heritage during commencement exercises.”

Was this misapplication of, and feckless disregard for, the law driven by racism? Not to my knowledge. Was it driven by an official’s personal animus toward Holloway? Again, not to my knowledge. Racism and personal animus are possibilities, of course, but I think it’s far more probable that the fiasco was driven primarily by educational authoritarianism. Some educators and staff consider the graduation ceremony a solemn, sacred, ritual in which the participants wear a holy uniform — the cap and gown — that must not be blasphemed by expressions of individuality. For these anal retentive apostles of conformity, only the colors, cords, and tassels, of academic distinction are permissible deviations from institutional uniformity. Holloway’s hand painted cap was considered an insolent frivolity, not a tribute to a proud culture and people.

Apologizing for FHS’s mistake is a start, but an apology does not, indeed cannot, unring the bell. Neither can rewriting the graduation rules, although that, too, is necessary. School boards and officials monitor the legislature carefully. How could they not have known precisely what was in the bill? Gov. Bullock signed SB-319, which took effect immediately, into law on 21 April. Both the high school’s administrators and the trustees of School District 5 need to explain why they were only “generally aware” of its provisions, and why they did not move heaven and earth to make sure everyone knew exactly what the new law required. Good people did nothing, ensuring that Zephrey Holloway’s rights were violated, and that opprobrium was brought down upon our community. Figuratively speaking, it’s time for heads to roll.