Students from multiple Merced Union High School District (MUHSD) schools gathered at Merced High School on May 8 to address the school board regarding decorating graduation caps, frustrated with a lack of policy that was inclusive of all students.
MUHSD had sent out an AR that day regarding California State Assembly Bill No. 1248, which went into effect Jan. 1, a bill that allows students to wear “traditional tribal regalia or recognized objects of religious or cultural significance as an adornment at school graduation ceremonies.” However, according to student organizers, this was not known by those advocating for graduation decorations for all and not just for traditional tribal regalia or recognized objects of religious or cultural significance.
Jerry, a senior at Atwater High School and a member of 99Rootz, said that he and other students met with board members individually and was told that board members would fight for them in order to decorate caps by the end of the year. He didn’t know that the AR would only include Assembly Bill No. 1248, let alone that it would be sent out to students on May 8, when graduation is a month away on Jun. 6.
“We thought that wasn’t fair because at first, they said it was an on-site decision, but then all of a sudden, they brought up an educational code law, which we thought was pretty unfair because it was so last minute,” Jerry said.
Some students, like Citlali Haro of Atwater High School and a member of Girls and Womyn of Color (GWoC), think that MUHSD doesn’t help students or listen to them. Haro, like Jerry, thinks that the board misled students.
“Especially when [MUHSD Superintendent] Alan Peterson said that — he openly said it in Livingston — that he was going to send out an AR [about graduation cap decorations],” Haro said. “That brought a lot of people hope and I’ve also heard many people even started decorating them, and then being let down by what happened.”
MUHSD Board President Richard Lopez said in an email that he “was encouraged to see students who felt strongly about the issue to come to the meeting and address the board.” Board Clerk Erin Hamm said she was pleased to see students at the school board meeting, and noted in particular that students who came from Livingston High School were very well organized, extremely respectful, and had really thought through the issue.
At the end of the May 8 meeting, Hamm recommended that MUHSD should take a look at what other districts and schools use as language in their policies and see if the district could adopt similar language. She reiterated this in a later interview.
“I understand that our legal team is doing its job,” Hamm said. “When we had put together a statement that was much more flexible for students and campuses, our legal counsel said, ‘no.’ They re-authored it and then it became relatively prohibitive. I know that other school sites allow decorating of graduation caps. We need to find out what their language is and how they’re going about allowing that in a lawful and orderly fashion. Have I heard about that since I asked that question [at the board meeting]? No. I do think it was too late in May for us to make an impactful change for graduation this year. It’s so unfortunate for these kids because I really applaud their efforts, but they should hopefully take solace in the notion that they will have pioneered something for generations to come.”
Jerry noted that there was miscommunication between the board and students and that they hadn’t heard any update at all since the May 8 meeting.
Both Hamm and Lopez said that graduation cap decorations will be up to the principal of each school.
“My understanding is that it’s always been site-specific,” Hamm said. “Graduation is different from campus to campus. Students had been encouraged to talk to their principals about specific nuances for their special day.”
In addition to Assembly Bill No. 1248, Lopez said that students may only wear the approved graduation attire (cap, gown, tassel and stole).
“Moreover, students are prohibited from wearing any additional items, or doing anything to their attire, that could significantly distract from or disrupt the proceedings,” Lopez wrote in an email. “That matter is left to the discretion of the site Principals who have the district’s complete support.”
Hamm and Lopez both mentioned that the Board will likely add this matter to the agenda in the fall. However, students do not feel like that will happen.
Jerry feels that the board will only stand by the AR and Assembly Bill No. 1248 because it’s an educational code law.
“I feel like they’re not going to bring up the issue again,” Jerry said. “I feel like they’re just going to brush it off to the side.”
Haro, who has helped with the #MErcedToo movement since 2018, says it’s disappointing to her because it seems that the board won’t listen to students regarding smaller issues such as graduation cap decorations, let alone larger issues such as a sexual harassment policy. MUHSD has not yet released a comprehensive sexual harassment policy that meets the demands of students and teachers who called for more accountability.
“Honestly, I do not think that they would talk about it in the fall,” Haro said. “Especially knowing that the district doesn’t really care about what students want. I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t.”