Colorado students petition to wear African cloth at graduation

Tuesday, May 5, 1998

ARVADA, Colo. — Four African-American students at Arvada High School are relying on a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in their fight to wear strips of Ghanaian Kente cloth with their robes on graduation day.

In Tinker v. Des Moines School District, the court said students and teachers do not shed their “constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the school house gate.”

“I would hope that the school authorities would decide to just permit this without it having to be resolved by lawyers,” said Mark Silverstein of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU is backing the students.

Attorneys for the school district are looking at free speech issues, said district spokeswoman Kay Pride.

Kabuki Ocansey, 18, whose parents were born in Ghana, had her father order the Kente cloths hand-woven with the words “Arvada High School Class of 1998.”

In Ghana, the multicolored Kente cloth is worn on special occasions.

“This signifies the pride we have in our heritage and culture,” Ocansey said. Other graduates should be able to celebrate their heritage, as long as it is done in a respectful way, she said.

Arvada requires students to sign a contract saying they will wear only the standard-issue cap and gown. The contract stems from disruptions at past graduations and the community's desire for a more dignified ceremony, Jefferson County Supervisor Ron Horn said.