Woods Cross Principal: No Leis at Grad Ceremony

Woods Cross Principal: No Leis at Grad Ceremony

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WOODS CROSS, Utah (AP) -- A high school principal refused to allow Pacific Islander graduates to wear traditional leis during this year's graduation ceremony, saying graduation adornments were "getting out of control."

Rick Call, principal at Woods Cross High for five years, said students were allowed only to wear traditional caps and gowns and cords signifying academic achievement at the Thursday graduation. Any other decoration "is not part of our ceremony," he said.

"This is not anything to put down any culture," Call said.

Kaili Tonga, 17, hoped to walk across the Woods Cross Regional Center stage wearing a lei given to him by his mother to show pride in his Polynesian heritage.

Kaili's mother, Leilani Rosalez, said that before the ceremony, she had a lengthy telephone conversation with Call in which he told her some graduating seniors had wanted to put graffiti on their caps and gowns, and that their families had planned to ring cowbells throughout the ceremonies.

But to Rosalez, a lei is an honor cord. "It's what we do in our family. We wear leis as a sign of nobility and honor," she said. "It's not graffiti and it's not a cowbell."

Other high schools, such as Highland and East in Salt Lake City, permit students, Polynesian and otherwise, to wear leis during graduation. The University of Utah had a lei-vending table set up outside the Huntsman Center on graduation day May 2.

But Call said graduation adornment "was just getting out of control. This year the decision was made that we would do everything we could to help our ceremony be more dignified and formal."

Call emphasized that the lei prohibition came from the school's joint staff-study committee, a group of teachers and administrators. "It's not my policy," he said. "But I'm enforcing it."

Bill Afeaki, director of the state Office of Pacific Islander Affairs, said such insistence on conformity is "outrageous."

"That is telling us it's wrong to be brown. Do we need to be white to graduate?" he said.

The wearing of leis on special days "is part and parcel of our culture," Afeaki said. A lei represents "the best that we have. It is made of the flowers that God has endowed us with."

The blooms befit a celebration such as commencement, Afeaki added. "It's no different than wearing a tie."

Leis themselves don't do any harm, Call said, but there is a line separating what is and isn't appropriate.

"If they can have a flower lei, they will say, 'I can put anything I want on my gown: candy, ribbons, bows,' " he said.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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