Like high school and college students everywhere, some incipient graduates of Keene High School have long adorned their mortarboards with personal touches. Even a year ago, some students at Keene High’s ceremony attached photos or other personal touches to their gowns.
But when several students approached the administration this year, requesting to wear sashes they received from military recruiters for signing up for duty, they were rebuffed. And so a controversy was born, perhaps lending credence to the view that it’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask permission.
One of the students said Principal James Logan told them the sashes would “distract” others. One might well ask, distract from what? With all due respect to the symbolic importance of the event, most graduations are interminable, tedious endeavors in which the vast majority of those involved — the graduates and their supporters — are interested mainly in the 20 seconds or so that feature the graduate’s name being announced and a quick walk across a stage. If avoiding distraction is the issue, make graduates hand over their cellphones before sitting down.
This particular flap comes against a backdrop familiar in this region. In 2013 ConVal Regional High School graduate-to-be Brandon Garabrant asked to wear his Marine uniform to graduation, instead of the traditional cap and gown. He had just finished basic training and wanted to demonstrate his patriotism and pride in the accomplishment. He was turned down by then-Principal Brian Pickering, who consulted the Marines and both the student council and graduation committee. Garabrant was killed about a year later, at age 19, when the tank he was in was hit by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. In 2016, the Legislature passed Brandon’s Law, which allows those who’ve been through boot camp to wear their military dress at graduation.
A sash given out for signing up for military service isn’t the same as a uniform earned after completing basic training, though, and Keene High officials noted it doesn’t fall under Brandon’s Law. It does seem more akin to swag from a visit to the college a student plans to attend in the fall.
School Administrative Unit 29 Superintendent Robert Malay noted the real problem for administrators: 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. One might argue that reasonable officials could differentiate between respectful personal displays and frivolous or inappropriate ones. But in today’s culture, one could very easily see a free-speech lawsuit following such a decision. Such is the truly difficult job of an administrator these days.
Malay also said: “Keene High School and high school graduation in general is a reflection of what students have accomplished during their time in high school. 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.”
That’s an interesting interpretation of an event literally called a “commencement,” featuring speeches that typically offer advice to the graduates moving forward and urge them to both act as solid citizens and find their own way to a successful adult life.
Importantly, the school’s administration opted two years ago to allow the students to decorate their hats, which Malay said gives them a chance to highlight any future plans.
Any student who wishes to do so, then, can write, paint or paste anything they want on the most visible part of their ceremonial outfit. It would seem as far as allowing personal statements that may “distract,” the door has already been opened.
Malay planned to meet Thursday with one student, future Air Force member Clarice Davis of Lempster, on the subject. Logan said Thursday on WKBK radio he stands by the decision, and that there isn’t time to construct a policy before graduation on June 14. But the issue is on the agenda for the school board meeting Tuesday, and a full policy isn’t needed to simply say “yes, this is a reasonable request.”
The issue won’t go away, and the school board soon after this year’s commencement should turn its attention to finding a solution that satisfies both administrators trying to keep the peace and students who — after all — are theoretically the ones being celebrated at commencement exercises. We hope the board won’t fall back on the easiest ground: that of saying no expressions of individuality will be allowed at all.
In the meantime, since students can already alter their outfits, for this year’s graduation those who wish to should be allowed to wear their military sashes. Alternatively, we suppose, the students could wear their sashes hanging from their mortarboards. That wouldn’t be distracting at all.