Students sue school district over graduation ban on African sash

Friday, May 15, 1998

Two seniors at Arvada High School in Arvada, Colo., filed suit against Jefferson County School District and the school principal Thursday for refusing to allow them to wear Kente cloths during the upcoming graduation May 26.

Enockina Ocansey and Aisha Price contend the district's refusal to allow them to wear the cloth–which they describe as “an expression of cultural pride, dignity and honor”–is “a direct, official and improper deprivation and violation of the right … to engage in silent symbolic expression.”

The students allege in their lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado that the district's decision violates their free expression rights under the First Amendment, the state constitution and a state law titled “Rights of free expression for public school students.”

Ocansey, Price and two other African-American students had petitioned school officials earlier this month to wear the 4-inch by 3-foot sashes over their graduation gowns. However, Principal Ken Robke denied the request in a letter dated Monday.

Robke said he denied the request because he wanted to “preserve the unity of the graduation” and because he feared that if the school allowed the Kente cloth “other individuals might choose to wear adornments intended to convey a viewpoint that others might find offensive.”

Mark Silverstein, the legal director of the Colorado ACLU, said: “We believe the First Amendment protects the students' right to wear the Kente cloths at their graduation ceremony. Wearing the cloth communicates the students' pride in their heritage in a dignified manner that is entirely consistent with the special and ceremonial nature of the occasion.”

School district spokeswoman Marilyn Saltzman said: “The district's policy was conveyed in the letter sent to the students' parents,” and declined to comment further, saying the “matter is now in the hands of attorneys.”

At least one constitutional law expert sees some merit in the school's argument. Vanderbilt law professor Tom McCoy said: “The school district really has only two choices: to allow no symbolic expression at graduation or to allow a parade of political statements at graduation.”

McCoy said that “if the school allows some symbolic expression, but refused to allow other symbols and engages in content discrimination, then the school district would be in constitutional trouble.”

David Greene of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression said: “From a policy perspective at least, we would have preferred that school officials place less of an emphasis on unity and appreciate more students' individuality and different cultural backgrounds.”