History Lesson and Value of Academic Honor

Just a little FYI letter to Ms. Williams and some a great history lesson on academic regalia in Jefferson County Public Schools.


From: Tammie Peters
Date: May 25, 2015, 9:30:12 PM
To: juwillia@jeffco.k12.co.us
Subject: A concern about recent graduation ceremonies

Dear Ms. Williams:

I realize that you are in the midst of many important issues right now: contract negotiations, school overcrowding, budget issues and other pressing concerns. However, I wanted to take a moment to point out a faux pas you committed at recent graduation ceremonies when you wore a decorative scarf over your graduation robe. I’m sure your error was accidental, so I thought I’d fill you in on some background.


While I’msure your addition of the scarf was to add some color and “fit in” with the other adornments adults were wearing, it was rather inappropriate. Everything that is worn on a robe has academic significance and must be earned. The cords that are worn around the neck, sort of like scarves, are awarded by academic honor societies, which have rigorous standards behind them: gold for the National Honor Society, silver and red for the National Speech and Debate Association, royal blue for International Thespians, purple and white for the National Technical Honor Society, to name a few. Other students get to wear scarf-like stoles—these indicate Valedictorians and Salutatorians, those students who rose to the very top of their graduating class.


Then there are the colors you see faculty members wearing down their backs. Those are called hoods and represent the degrees earned by those individuals. The satin portion of the hood has the colors of the university, while the velvet strip represents the area of the degree. The different lengths of these hoods represent the level of degree attained. Shorter ones are for bachelors degrees (not all schools let their teachers wear bachelor hoods), medium length ones are for masters degrees, and long ones represent doctorate degrees. Unfortunately, the scarf you chose to wear was against all this academic protocol.


Not only that, but it violated court orders regarding graduations, court orders that were decided specifically in Jefferson County. In 1998, four students at Arvada High School asked to wear kente cloth stoles over their graduation robes in honor of their Ghanaian heritage. In Ghana, such stoles are ceremonial symbols of adulthood. However, the principal denied permission; he explained that “while the kente cloth is a symbol of great dignity and respect, he was barring the sashes in order to preserve the unity of the graduation” (from an Associated Press articles you can read here: http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/federal-judge-denies-student-request-to-wear-african-cloth-at-graduation). The ACLU got involved, and it went to court, where a judge upheld the restriction.


The next year, in 1999, Columbine students wanted to wear silver and blue pins to honor those who were lost in the school shooting that April. Jefferson County said they couldn’t, the ACLU got involved, and again, it went to court. Here is how The Denver Post reported the outcome:


A federal judge Friday backed a Jefferson County school district policy that bans adornments on graduation gowns, after the American Civil Liberties Union challenged it on the grounds that it violates students’ freedom of expression.


“The school district is very sympathetic to the students,” said attorney William Stullar, representing the district. “But we can’t choose between symbols, between a Columbine ribbon, a Kente cloth, a Christian cross, an Irish scarf or a photograph of Marilyn Manson.”


School officials say the code protects students and parents from distasteful or insulting messages or symbols.


“Suppose someone wanted to wear a Swastika,” district spokesman Rick Kaufman said. (As reported in The
Denver Post http://extras.denverpost.com/news/shot0522a.htm )


Both times, students wanted to wear something on their robes that was not part of academic regalia, and both times, the courts got involved. And we all know how serious it is when the courts get involved in an issue. I wanted to give you this historical perspective because I know how much you value a complete and balanced understanding of history.


I am sure you meant no harm by wearing the scarf. You probably didn’t know all these details, and unfortunately no one informed you about this before the ceremonies. However, in these sensitive times, some teachers took great offense at your choice. It seemed to them that you may have been mocking their efforts at earning advanced degrees or even mocking student efforts at earning academic honors. Teachers who had earned their advanced degrees during the pay freeze (but have more than eight years of experience in the District) are understandably sensitive to an action which, to them, seems to insult their hard work by treating regalia as mere decoration. Other teachers feel your faux pas was indicative of a lack of respect for teachers and education in general.


As a member of the Board of Education, I’m sure you have great regard for the achievements of our students and the quality of our faculties. You have often talked about wanting to work for higher student achievement and the need to have highly effective teachers in every classroom. But your scarf could be taken to mean just the opposite of these intents. I would like to suggest that you might address this issue at the next Board meeting. A quick apology would go a long way. If you don’t feel this is an issue for the whole public, a short message to all staff about the error would also be a good idea – I’m sure Mr. McMinimee or Ms. Pinto could assist you with that if necessary.


Thank you for your time,
Tammie Peters – Jeffco graduate, teacher, and parent