Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
WEST JORDAN — Jenilyn Su'a grew up in the Jordan School District and graduated from Copper Hills High School in 1999.
Now, her children are going to school in the district.
"I'm here today to express my concern about the banning of cultural attire and leis at graduation," Su'a said, at the Jordan School District Board of Education Tuesday evening.
District policy AA419 addresses student conduct, dress and appearance for all schools in the district. Recently, it has come under controversy as some students, staff, parents and advocates say it is "discriminatory," as it doesn't allow students to don cultural attire during their respective graduation ceremonies.
A petition on Change.org specifically mentions Jordan School District and says that policies like this are "extremely discriminatory and disappointing." Alpine School District, the focal point of the petition, recently issued a statement allowing items of "cultural significance" to be worn at graduation.
In addition to growing up in and graduating from the Jordan School District, Su'a now sits on the board of directors for the Utah Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Coalition.
"To say we as a community are concerned is an understatement. We're more than concerned — we're upset, we're hurt and to be fully transparent this feels a little discriminatory," Su'a said, adding that she was surprised with the policy, considering the population of Pacific Islanders within the district.
"We are an integral part of the culture that makes up Jordan School District," she said.
As far as graduation goes, AA419 stipulates that:
- Conduct, dress and appearance is to adhere to the provisions in this policy and be appropriate for a ceremony of this nature.
- Graduates are expected to wear the prescribed cap and gown without decoration, additions, or alterations.
- Formal, semi-formal, or customary dress attire is appropriate for a commencement ceremony.
- 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.
"To enforce a policy that denies us the ability to freely practice our cultural customs is wrong and frankly, unconstitutional," Su'a said.
While speaking to the board, she pointed out that there are no people of color represented on the board.
Why? Because the lived experience of people of color is full of policies similar to AA419, she said.
Students the policy would directly impact were also at the meeting Tuesday, to express their concerns and wishes to the board.
I will not let you take away my right to represent myself and my family when it comes to graduating and celebrating my achievements.
–Fatima Al-Seady, Copper Hills High School student
Fatima Al-Seady is set to graduate from Copper Hills High School as the eldest daughter of a first-generation Iraqi-American.
She described this as her greatest accomplishment in the public school system and brought her sisters to the meeting so that they could "see that their voices can be heard."
"My biggest accomplishment is honoring my parents who have worked hard and my ancestors when I walk down that stage," Al-Seady said. "I will not let you take away my right to represent myself and my family when it comes to graduating and celebrating my achievements."
She said that the policy — which took effect in 1974 — has a historical background and effect of prejudice that "excludes people of color."
Along with Su'a and Al-Seady, Steve Haslam, a teacher in the Jordan School District also showed up to support his "friends of color."
He referenced an earlier point in the meeting when another public commenter asked those in favor of allowing cultural attire at graduation ceremonies to stand up.
"How many people did not stand when he said, 'who was in support of regalia?' There was quite a few at the back and it's kind of a scary situation, to be honest, that my friends of color have to be in a district where they're surrounded by people that do not support them," Haslam said.
Two years ago, the district held many graduations in a drive-through format due to COVID restrictions. While these graduations didn't quite have the pomp and circumstance of a regular ceremony, they did have other positive aspects.
"What I thought was really cool about those graduation ceremonies is that the people coming through in their cars, they were able to celebrate themselves and their history and their culture and fly their flags," Haslam said. "I would really appreciate, as a white guy talking to a bunch of white folks about issues for people of color, that we just wake up and change the dang policies because it's the right thing to do."
After hearing the public comments, the board was faced with a decision: amend AA419, or risk losing the trust of some of the constituents they represent.
While they didn't want to do away with the policy entirely — fearing potential legal consequences and the burden that would be placed on the school faculty and staff members that oversee graduation ceremonies — the board ultimately came to the conclusion that the best path forward would be to make an exception this year, to the graduation section of policy AA419, to "allow recognized items of religious or cultural significance during the graduation ceremony."
The motion passed unanimously.
This decision was met with resounding cheers and applause from the audience.
"I hope that this will be an opportunity for each of us to understand what it means to be a neighbor, a brother, or sister ... You, students, have worked for this," said board member Niki George.