Teens who are about to give their whole lives to defending democracy are being barred from graduation
Fights over what high school students can and can’t wear tend to revolve around girls being shamed over their skirt length—or when administrators say they need to personally review photos of teens to make sure that their prom dresses don’t show too much skin.
But if ever there’s a time to be flexible about what a student can wear, it seems as if it might be when a teen who has enlisted shows up to graduation in their United States Armed Forces uniform. You know, the formal, government-issued dress blues that represent the sacrifice they’re making to uphold freedom and democracy. However, when it comes to the ceremony, some high schools across the nation are taking a strict rules-are-rules stance and barring enlisted teens who refuse to ditch their military dress for a cap and gown.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]I’m sorry, I can’t do that. That’s defacing the uniform.[/quote]
Harland Fletcher enlisted in the U.S. Army when he turned 17, completing basic combat training during the summer between his junior and senior years at Liberty Union High School in Brentwood, California. Fletcher told KPIX that he talked to his school counselor about wearing the uniform to graduation and thought he had a green light. However, when he showed up to the ceremony on Friday, he was told that his uniform violated the Bay Area school’s commencement dress code.
“‘No, you can’t walk in that.’ And I asked why, and he said, ‘That’s not the graduation uniform,’” said Fletcher of his conversation with a school administrator.
Fletcher was told he could put the cap and gown on over his uniform. “They said they had an extra cap and gown, and I said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do that. That’s defacing the uniform. That’s against the uniform policy,’” he recounts. According to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a soldier who covers his or her uniform could face court martial.
Rather than cover the uniform, Fletcher and his family chose to leave the ceremony and head to his graduation party.
His father, Bill Fletcher told local Fox affiliate KTVU that he is, “tired of service members and vets being quietly and systematically denied rights by establishments that should know, respect, and abide by the laws enacted on all of our behalf.”
In Indiana, Jacob Dalton Stanley’s refusal to put on a cap and gown resulted in him being unable to walk in the Crown Point High School graduation—and the school didn’t even read his name at the ceremony. Stanley finished his coursework in December, completed basic training in the U.S. Marines this spring, and flew home last week for the ceremony.
Stanley declined media requests, but graduating senior Leann Tustison expressed the sentiments of many when she told the Northwest Indiana Times that the school’s decision was "absolutely ridiculous. He's in the military putting his life on the line for us."
Chip Pettit, the principal of Crown Point High School told the paper that the school’s cap and gown requirement allows “the class to show unity by dressing the same.” The decision to ban Stanley “is also not intended to be disrespectful to our students choosing to serve in the military, our active duty servicemen and women and our veterans. We are forever grateful for the sacrifices that they make on a daily basis for our freedom,” said Pettit.
Not all schools take issue with enlisted students wearing military uniforms to commencement. At nearby Hobart High School in Hobart, Indiana, graduating senior Ana Kritikos, who also finished her coursework early and enlisted in the Marines, had the full support of administrators. "I know the school board, the principal, and superintendent talked about it and were in agreement that I could wear my Marine uniform," Kritikos told the Times.
Maj. Clark Carpenter, a spokesperson for the U.S. Marines, told the paper that "The Marine Corps does not dictate what specific high schoolers can or cannot graduate in.” The decision about what students are required to wear is up to the school, said Carpenter.
The Army hasn’t weighed in on Fletcher’s situation, but after reviewing California law, district officials in Brentwood realized they were wrong to block Fletcher from wearing his uniform to graduation. “It has become clear that Harland Fletcher may have the right to wear his U.S. Army Dress Uniform at his graduation and on behalf of the Liberty Union High School District I publically (sic) apologize to him and his family for this Incident,” superintendent Eric Volta said in a statement issued on Saturday.
For Fletcher, the district’s apology isn’t enough. “I honestly feel like you can apologize all you really want, but in the moment, you should’ve already known,” he said. Fletcher picked up his diploma on Monday and will head to Advanced Individual Training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.