With Keene High School’s graduation a little less than two weeks away, more than 1,300 people have signed an online petition asking the school to let students wear military sashes with their caps and gowns.
Clarice Davis, 17, of Lempster, said she is one of 11 graduating Keene High students who have enlisted in the armed forces. But when students reached out to administration about wearing sashes they’d been given by their recruiters for graduation, they were told that they would not be allowed because enlisting is not considered a school-affiliated activity, Davis said.
Davis said she and other students launched their petition on Change.org Friday, and since then have received numerous supportive comments on social media. Many of them thank the students for their upcoming service.
But when she and a few other enlisted students met with Keene High Principal James F. Logan on Monday to show him their petition, he told them the sashes would be distracting for other students and that they could appeal to the school board if they disagreed, Davis said.
Logan was not reachable by The Sentinel for comment Monday. N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 Superintendent Robert H. Malay said this morning that administrators are in the process of reviewing district policies, handbooks and past practices to determine if there is any existing guidance on the issue.
Malay said students have traditionally been allowed to wear cords for school-related accomplishments, such as completing programs through the Cheshire Career Center or being part of an honors society or other academic organization. Logan has also allowed students to decorate their caps for the past two years, Malay said, giving them an opportunity to highlight any future plans after graduation.
“I’m going to be very candid that Keene High School and high school graduation in general is a reflection of what students have accomplished during their time in high school,” Malay said. “It is not a time to take in other considerations of what they might be doing a year, two years, three years down the road.”
Davis has enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and said she’s set to leave for boot camp in San Antonio, Texas, just 11 days after graduating. She said she wants to wear her sash, which features the Air Force logo and colors, partly because she looks up to those who have served. Each student’s sash represents the branch they’ve elected to join.
“I think it would be just a good thing to show our community how proud we are to be joining the military, because 71 percent of people from 17 to 24 don’t even qualify to enlist,” Davis said, referring to data released by the Pentagon. “So the fact that we are able to, we’re kind of proud about that, and we’re grateful that we have the opportunity to choose (to enlist.)”
This isn’t the first time Monadnock Region students and administrators have found themselves at odds over military attire at graduation.
In 2016, then-Gov. Maggie Hassan signed Brandon’s Law, legislation named for U.S. Marine Cpl. Brandon J. Garabrant of Greenfield that allows graduates who have completed boot camp to wear a military dress uniform for their high school commencement ceremony.
Garabrant’s graduation from ConVal Regional High School in 2013 made national headlines after the school refused to let him wear his Marine dress uniform, mandating that he wear a cap and gown instead. The student council and graduation committee — both of which turned down Garabrant’s request — cited conformity, saying the celebration was about graduating from high school, not the Marines, then-principal Brian S. Pickering said at the time.
Garabrant was killed about a year later, in June 2014, when the tank he was in was hit by a roadside bomb in the southern Helman province of Afghanistan. He was 19.
Davis said she’s not eligible to wear a military dress uniform, as she hasn’t yet attended boot camp, and the sash she hopes to wear isn’t protected under Brandon’s Law.
“We should honor those people who are willing to serve because a lot of people aren’t. It’s just really sad to me that nothing changed with Brandon’s Law until after he died and wasn’t taken seriously until after he died,” Davis said. “And I think that we should care more about the military in general.”
Davis said she has scheduled a time to meet with Malay Thursday to talk more about the issue. She stressed that she wants to be as respectful as possible, but said it’s been difficult to communicate with administrators, even as parents and recruiters have also reached out.
Malay said he hopes to find a resolution during that meeting. But the main consideration is ensuring the school is consistent in what it allows, he said. If military sashes are allowed, it would raise the question of whether regalia from other outside entities, such as religious groups, colleges and community organizations, must also be permitted, he said.
“I have the utmost respect for every member of our community and our society who serves in the armed forces. My dad is a veteran, and I have other relatives who are veterans, and I know the sacrifices that they have made,” Malay said. “This is a question that is, well, where do we draw the line on what is and what is not acceptable at a high school graduation?”
The students also plan to make their case before the Keene Board of Education at its next meeting June 11, which falls three days before graduation. George Downing, chairman of the board, confirmed Monday evening that the issue will be on that night’s agenda, but declined to comment further until he has learned more about the situation.
Davis isn’t sure if she’ll walk at graduation if she’s not allowed to wear the sash — but she emphasized that it’s not about being recognized over other students.
“We want to walk as everybody else does but wear these sashes,” she said, “and we don’t understand how it’s any more distracting than the cords.”