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LUCI WELDON/The Warren Record

Warren County students, from the left, Evynn Richardson, Miss Warren County For Indian Education Taylor Williams and Miss Haliwa-Saponi 2018-19 Zianne Richardson await a school system announcement about wearing cultural articles of honor at graduation during the April 9 Warren County school board meeting.

Warren County’s Native American students are left feeling disrespected after a school system decision announced during the board of education’s April 9 meeting not to allow them to wear cultural articles of honor — such as eagle feathers and beaded caps — for graduation. Their feelings stem not so much from the announcement itself, but from language used to outline the reasoning behind the decision. 

Miss Haliwa-Saponi 2018-19 Zianne Richardson, a Warren County High School senior, and Senior Miss Warren County for Indian Education Taylor Williams, a Warren Early College High School senior, presented the students’ request during the board of education’s Jan. 8 meeting. They asked that students with religious or cultural customs be allowed to wear related articles at graduation ceremonies.

Richardson and Williams spoke specifically about Native American traditions, but asked that students of all cultures be allowed to wear articles of honor representing their cultural and religious heritage.

They said that Native American high school graduates place great honor on being able to wear such articles as eagle feathers and beaded caps for graduation. 

Richardson said previously that feathers are traditionally incorporated with the tassel on the graduation cap, and that turning of the tassel and feather during graduation is honored as an accomplishment of the entire Native American race. She described the use of beadwork on the graduation cap as representative of prayers for the graduate’s future success. 

During last week’s board meeting, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ray Spain said that the school system researched the practices of other North Carolina school districts as well as those of school districts in other areas of the country. He said that he also sought the opinions of principals and guidance counselors at the county’s three high schools: Warren County High School, Warren Early College High School and Warren New Tech High School.

“Essentially, they were unanimous in their opinion that we should not alter our current practice of not permitting any decoration for any reason for high school caps and gowns for commencement,” Spain said. “My recommendation to the board is in support of that recommendation, and, therefore, would recommend (not altering the policy for any reason).”

Richardson, Taylor and Richardson’s younger sister, Evynn, were present for last week’s meeting. Spain told them that the school system was understanding of the students’ request, but indicated that the school system concluded that to allow anyone to wear articles beyond the cap, gown and related academic attire for graduation would set a precedent that would result in students wearing articles that are too distracting.

However, the students feel disrespected that the school system’s decision was announced in the following manner:

“We are also aware that any alteration of (what is permitted to be worn at graduation) would open up all kinds of requests from non-Native Americans, and, practically the (entire) senior class to alter their caps and gowns, and I think would distract from our graduation ceremony,” Spain said. “This is not to cite or disregard your request, but, simply to maintain what we think is important, and that is to have some dignity in our graduation. We think that any form, any kind of decoration would be a distraction.”  

School board attorney Al Thompson added: “As Dr. Spain said, this decision not to change our district policy is not directed at the Native American community, but instead a move that will protect the order and dignity of the graduation ceremony. To open this to one group would allow any number of other groups to express whatever sentiments they may have.”

Board of Education Vice Chairwoman Barbara Brayboy, a member of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe, said that she was disappointed that other options were not presented, but understood the school system decision.

Board member Victoria Lehman asked if a ceremony could be held before or after graduation, like a college departmental graduation, that would allow Native American students to wear feathers and beaded caps.

“I think it would be inappropriate for the school to sponsor some sort of separate ceremony and have only participation of one group,” Thompson said. “That’s certainly not to discourage the Native American community from undertaking to do whatever celebration they (feel is appropriate).”

Board Chairwoman Ebony Talley-Brame said that the school system could revisit its decision later.

Board member Linda Bryd said that Warren County Schools must consider the growing diversity of students within its schools.

“Times are changing,” she said. “Sometimes you must adapt with the times.”

 Later in the week, Zianne Richardson told the newspaper that both she and Williams were “highly disappointed” with the school system’s decision.

“We have never felt as disrespected and disregarded as Native students,” she said. 

Richardson said that representatives from Warren County Schools praised the students for speaking before the board to make their request and seemed to be supportive of them during the process of studying whether the request could be accommodated. She said that the school system also adopted a resolution in support of Native American Heritage Month, so the board’s decision was unexpected.

“We were prepared for ‘no,’ and were disappointed,” Richardson said. “After things were said, the wording, we took it way harder. It was disrespectful … to say, ‘to protect the dignity and seriousness of the ceremony.’”

She added that a reference to eagle feathers and beading on graduation caps as decorations was also disrespectful and a complete disregard of cultural traditions.

The three students left last week’s meeting as soon as the decision was announced. However, Zianne Richardson said that they are not giving up.

“We knew when we left that it was not just no and go,” she said.

Richardson said that she and Williams continue to receive support from the community, both in person and through social media. 

She said that her friends from other counties who made similar requests to their local school boards or principals have had their requests granted or were told no in a respectful manner. Richardson said that local Native American students felt they had the support of the school system, but felt it was unfair to have to wait three months to be told no without an opportunity to respond.

She said that she and Williams plan to contact other elected officials at both the county and state levels, including the N.C. Department of Public Instruction and the General Assembly. On Monday, Richardson said that she and Williams also intend to file a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Richardson is already encouraging her younger sister, Evynn, a sophomore at Warren New Tech High School, to bring the request back to the Warren County Board of Education beginning with the first board meeting of the 2019-20 school year. She wants Native American students in each graduating class to continue to appear before the board of education until they are successful.

Spain told the newspaper that the school system’s decision and announcement were not meant to be disrespectful, and that the students’ request was much respected by local principals and the board of education. He said that eagle feathers and beaded caps do not fall into the category of what would be considered as distracting at a graduation. 

Spain added that he wished there could have been a way to accommodate the students, but the question arose of the precedent it would set for what other students would be allowed to wear with their caps and gowns beyond something that honors their cultural heritage. 

“We were looking at some other options, but when we discussed it with the board attorney, (he said any modifications) would open it up to practically anything students wanted,” Spain said. “We don’t want to be offensive, judging who can do what.”

Haliwa-Saponi Tribal Chief Dr. Ogletree Richardson was present at the January board meeting when Richardson and Williams presented their request. She told the newspaper last week that she had not had an opportunity to discuss the matter with the Haliwa-Saponi Tribal Council and wanted to speak with them before commenting.