Families & the Community

Pomp and Khaki Pants: What to Consider When Setting Graduation Dress Codes

By Evie Blad — June 02, 2023 4 min read
A teen girl in a red graduation cap and gown helps another graduate affix a tassel to her graduation cap.
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Graduation ceremonies—typically students’ final interactions with their schools—are meant to celebrate a milestone, not to cause a conflict. But some schools have stoked controversy with their dress codes for the events.

As Education Week reported this week, some students have sued after administrators prohibited them from wearing personally or culturally significant objects, like eagle feathers given to them in Native American ceremonies, along with their caps and gowns.

Other districts have been the subject of critical press coverage after they forbade graduates from walking for wearing sandals and t-shirts.

It comes down to this tension: School and district leaders want to set rules to preserve the formal nature of the event, but they also have an interest in maintaining positive relationships with students and their communities.

Here are four questions district leaders should consider when setting the dress code for a graduation ceremony.

What does your policy convey to students’ communities?

A growing number of states have laws protecting the rights of certain graduates—most commonly Native American students—to wear items of cultural and religious significance.

Lawmakers in at least five states joined them this year by passing new bills. That list includes Oklahoma, where legislators voted on May 25 to override a veto from Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, who had argued that such decisions should be left to school districts.

Those testifying in support of the new measures said entire communities feel recognized and valued when students wear items like leis and brightly colored Mexican serapes during significant life events, like graduations. They receive the opposite message when schools prohibit them from doing so, those advocates said.

Madysen Lealaitafea, a Samoan American high school senior, testified before a Utah legislative committee in February that she was “angry” when she learned students would be banned from wearing leis at her school’s graduation ceremony.

“It felt as if our district was robbing our identity as a culture, taking away our pride and our identity from us,” she said. “Leis are more than just flowers ... Leis are symbols of our families and of generations that have passed.”

Has your school clearly communicated rules early and often?

State laws that protect cultural expression at graduation ceremonies typically require schools to set policies for approving any deviations from district-approved regalia. Such policies allow schools to reject items that may cause a disturbance or distraction during the events.

But students testified they often aren’t aware of these processes. In Broken Arrow, Okla., graduate Lena’ Black, a member of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe, sued her former school district in May, claiming administrators damaged a sacred eagle feather she planned to wear when they told her to remove it.

A district spokesperson said Black hadn’t followed a process to get the item approved.

In other districts, parents protested when schools announced formal dress codes for the attire students wear under their robes as little as a week or two before ceremonies. For some families, purchasing compliant clothing can be a hardship, those parents argued.

Is your enforcement consistent?

Inconsistent and subjectively applied policies about graduation attire can lead to greater frustration.

Among the biggest decisions for administrators: What to do when a student is in violation? Is a deviation from the rules enough to justify stopping a student from walking, or forcing them to change?

Parents in Escambia County, Fla., told local news station WEAR that 30 students weren’t allowed to walk at a graduation there last week after being told their casual clothing choices violated the dress code. In one case, a mother said she rushed to get different shoes for her son, only to be told by an administrator it was too late to make a change.

In Nevada, a Native American mother complained that her son was stopped from wearing a traditional beaded cap during his ceremony, even though his older brother had been permitted to do so.

“Now as we look back at pictures of this day, we will constantly be reminded of the honor the school administration and graduation committee took away,” Nikki Haag, a member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, said in written testimony. “There are no do-overs for your son’s graduation ceremony.”

Are gender-specific dress codes necessary?

Some high schools have long-standing traditions of having male and female graduates wear different colors of caps and gowns.

In recent years, students have petitioned to end such practices, arguing that having a single color is more inclusive for transgender and nonbinary students. Some have also argued that the practice is dated or that they prefer one color for the sake of class unity.

The ACLU has argued such gender-specific policies, and requirements that female students wear skirts under their gowns, violate students’ rights.

A transgender girl skipped her high school graduation in Gulfport, Miss., on May 20 after a federal court refused to prohibit the district from requiring her to wear black pants under her robe instead of a skirt, in compliance with the boys’ dress code.

A cisgender girl at the same ceremony was also pulled from the lineup of graduates waiting to receive their diplomas when administrators realized she was wearing black pants, a violation of the girls’ dress code, local news station WLOX reported.

“I don’t understand how this, a moment this important, can be taken away from a child that’s worked 12 years to get here,” the student’s grandmother told the station.

Such controversies could be avoided by more flexible, gender-neutral policies, advocates said.

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