Jordan School District Board votes to allow leis, cultural regalia at graduation ceremonies this year

May 24, 2022, 11:48 PM | Updated: Jun 8, 2022, 5:25 pm

RIVERTON, Utah — A passionate debate Tuesday evening filled the Jordan School District Board of Education room, over if high school seniors can wear leis and other cultural regalia at graduation.

The district’s policy doesn’t allow for that type of wear, and many argued that needs to change.

The discussion took place just days before the Class of 2022 will walk across the graduation stage.

Families, students, and school district staff members showed up wearing leis, many making public comment to the board.

Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, spoke right before public comment kicked off, addressing the board about the importance of celebrating and valuing human diversity and culture.

“Leis are a culturally and spiritual custom to commemorate the developmental stage that our kids are moving from childhood to adulthood, and that’s such a sacred time for them,” she said.

According to school district policy, seniors may only wear “the prescribed cap and gown without decoration, additions, or alterations.”

While graduation dress code allows for formal, semi-formal, or customary dress attire underneath, “only school issued and approved tassels, sashes, pins, hoods, cowls, mantles, cords, insignias, or medals signifying achievement, honor, participation, membership, or recognition may be worn.”

The school district says that policy has been in place for many years. While the board did review the general dress code policy last fall, the district said no major changes were made when it came to leis or cultural regalia.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, students, staff members, parents, and community members spoke about wanting be able to honor culture and ancestry during such an important life milestone.

Some spoke about discrimination and the harm on minority communities by not allowing them to recognize their heritage.

The comments weren’t just about leis.

Fatima Al-Seady, a senior at Copper Hills High School, gave public comment wearing a keffiyeh.

The shawl-like, intricately patterned fabric sat draped around her shoulders, and Al-Seady expressed how it will allow her to celebrate this achievement as an Iraqi-American.

“Representing ourselves has been so hard,” she said.

Al-Seady said she’ll be the first person in her family to graduate high school and attend college. Her father escaped from Iraq during the Gulf War.

She wants to honor her family, and for her, wearing a keffiyeh is part of her identity.

“For those people who think this is going to be a culture fest when it comes to graduation, we are asking for at least just one thing to represent our ancestors and family,” she said.

The board engaged in passionate debate after hearing the comments, going back and forth on changing the policy, or waiting until next year.

Board First Vice President Bryce Dunford expressed believing that they need to fix the policy, but wondered if changing it quickly would do more harm than good.

“I do believe there are people who would take that right of free speech and do something hurtful,” he said.

Board Member Niki George argued it would be possible to make changes without those unintended consequences.

“There are ways that we can allow expression of pride and respect and cultural heritage and have guidelines,” she said.

In the end, the board voted to make an exception this year to the graduation dress code, allowing for “recognized items of religious or cultural significance.”

The room erupted with cheers and happy dances as soon as the board made the vote.

For students like Al-Seady, it means when she walks across the stage next week, she’ll be able to wear her keffiyeh proudly.

The board expressed the intention to reconvene on the topic and come up with a longer-term policy next year.

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Jordan School District Board votes to allow leis, cultural regalia at graduation ceremonies this year