In a column for Yahoo! Shine, Beth Greenfield notes that high school graduations have become tinged with controversy this year thanks to a number of well-publicized incidents between schools and their students regarding who is and is not allowed to walk at the graduation ceremony and why. The latest story involves Alabama's Chelsey Ramer – a now-graduated senior at Escambia Academy – whose diploma is being held by the school because she wore a feather representing her Indian heritage on her graduation cap.
The school says Ramer broke the rules and is now demanding that she pay a $1,000 fine before her diploma and transcripts are released to her. Ramer says that eagle feather was her way of honoring her heritage. She wore it despite being previously warned by the school's former headmaster Betty Warren that she would be disciplined. Warren has since left her job, although it is unknown if the feather incident played a role.
The school had no comment on the story.
Other recent incidents seem just as extreme: In Tennessee, honors student Austin Mendoza was banned from his graduation ceremony after he missed a mandatory rehearsal because he had to go to work to help pay for college.
Texas straight-A senior Lauren Green, meanwhile, has been barred from taking part in her upcoming June 7 ceremony for allegedly drinking at her prom; she claimed the accusation wasn't true and filed a lawsuit against the school, which was dismissed.
And in New Mexico, a transgender student was essentially pushed out of his commencement ceremony by being told he had to wear a white robe, for girls, instead of a black robe, for boys, at the private St. Pius X school. As a result, the student, Damian Garcia, chose to skip the event. "I'm fully respecting this and myself by not walking and/or attending the ceremony at all," he said in a Facebook post.
Although high school graduation has long been considered a meaningful rite of passage for high school seniors, the controversy surrounding the event seems sudden. According to Gabe Rottman of the ACLU, there has been a recent uptick in the number of incidents filed with the group that Rottman believes indicate that schools are being overly harsh when restricting students' freedom of expression.
Not to mention, by enforcing policies like the one in place at Escambia, Rottman notes, the school administrators are punting on an opportunity to teach their charges what freedom of expression is and why it is important.
"In general," Rottman said, "overly punitive disciplinary policies tend to be counterproductive to good education."