In contrast to the Roy Costner saga, we have the graduation conduct of Chelsey Ramer, proud member Poarch Creek Band of Indians and a graduating senior at Escambia Academy High School in Atmore, Alabama. Four years ago, graduating members of her tribe had worn ceremonial eagle feathers in their caps at the school’s graduation procession and the handing out of diplomas. The school tool no action then, because it was taken by surprise, but this year, Chelsey’s class was presented with new dress code, as well as a contract seniors had to sign in order to participate in graduation ceremonies.
It forbade any “extraneous items during graduation exercises.” It also said students violating the agreement would not receive their diplomas until appropriate disciplinary actions were taken and students paid a whopping $1,000 fine.
Chelsey says she refused to sign the contract. She decided that honoring her heritage with an eagle feather on her cap was worth whatever consequences that resulted. She wore the feather, and now the school is demanding that she pay the thousand dollar fine to receive her transcripts and diploma.
1. If Chelsea did not sign the contract, she didn’t violate the contract. The agreement says that refusing to sign means that she would not be permitted to participate in the ceremonies. As I read the document, if the school allowed her to participate, it waived the dress code, and has no right fining or otherwise disciplining the student by the terms of an agreement she never submitted to.
2. The school will claim that this wasn’t an agreement, and that the signature was merely to acknowledge that the terms had been read and understood. If so, the document was erroneously referred to in the document as an agreement. Moreover, it says right in the document that the penalty for not signing is having one’s right to participate in the exercises revoked. The school did nothing to meet its stated obligations, and allowed a non-signing, non-agreeing, non-conforming student to march with a forbidden feather in her cap. It can’t fairly fine Chelsea for conduct it said it would prevent and didn’t.
3. Chelsea says she was willing to accept the consequences for her statement. That’s her choice. She didn’t promise, by falsely signing an agreement, to do otherwise. She did not hide her defiant act. She did not disrupt the proceedings in any way, nor interfere with any other student’s graduation. She is not, in short, Roy Costner.
4. Does the school have a legitimate interest in promoting conformity in graduation dress? As someone who graduated from a famously ornery college during the height of student protest fever, I can attest that it does. My graduation was a circus parade, thanks to disrespectful graduates in face paint, with peace signs and strike symbols on the their robes, with flowers in their caps and with some wearing no pants. How does a school allow tribal feathers and not Kermit dolls, Flying Spaghetti Monster T-shirts, Impeach Obama hats and Groucho glasses? The best policies are either anything goes, or nothing does.
5. Even if the fine were properly levied, isn’t it excessive? In practice, it sure seems so; as a threat, it is almost necessary. The fine would have to be enough to act as a real disincentive; I can see a kid saying, “Hey, I only graduate once. It’s worth $250 bucks to do something they talk about forever, so I’ll dress as Batman.” A thousand dollars is a persuasive counter-argument. Nonetheless, insisting on that kind of penalty for a feather just isn’t reasonable, even with a warning.
As I see it, this student did nothing unethical. She didn’t break an agreement, didn’t disrupt the exercises, and was willing to accept reasonable consequences for her conduct—and the fine, in her case, is unreasonable.
Facts: Indian Country Today