Fairfax School Board votes to honor military enlistees

March 8, 2012

The Fairfax County School Board voted Thursday to require that high schools honor graduating seniors who have enlisted in the military and to give each school flexibility to decide how best to do that.

The move came as a disappointment to some parents, who had pushed the board to mandate that all schools recognize enlistees in the same way: with red, white and blue “honor cords” worn around the neck at graduation.

Instead, under the new policy adopted Thursday, principals at each school must work with student leaders to come up with a meaningful way to honor enlistees.

The board specified that at every school, recognition for enlistees — some of whom leave for basic training within days of graduation — should be commensurate with that afforded students bound for military academies or for college on ROTC scholarships.

Several board members said they hoped that giving students a say in crafting graduation ceremonies would be more likely to inspire reflection on enlistees’ commitment to serve than simply handing down an edict.

“This is sort of a teachable moment, and teachers don’t tell students what to do — teachers empower students to learn something from the experience,” said board member Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill).

Eleven members voted for the policy. Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield), who had been one of the strongest voices in favor of mandating honor cords, abstained.

Enlistees with “a red, white and blue piece of fabric — a string, a rope, a cord — draped over their shoulder will not in any way inhibit, infringe, affect, impact and certainly not detract from any graduation ceremony,” Schultz said.

Several people who spoke during the public comment period, including former School Board member Steve Hunt, implored the board to require the cords.

“When I was on the board, one of the goals we set was for students to become outstanding citizens,” said Hunt, a former Navy flight officer who spoke on behalf of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “There are few greater forms of community service than to join the United States military.”

The board considered an amendment put forth by Ted Velkoff (At Large) that would have required the honor cords. But it failed 7 to 5, with those who voted against it explaining that they want students to have a say in determining how to honor their military-bound classmates.

Board member Ryan McElveen (At Large), who opposed the honor-cord amendment, said graduations are about honoring past achievements, not necessarily about lauding future commitments.

Singling out military enlistees could lead schools down a “slippery slope,” he said, in which they are expected to honor future teachers, firefighters, police officers, librarians and astronauts.

“All of our graduates are going to serve our country,” McElveen said. “That’s what we prepare them to do.”

Board members on both sides of the issue said the vote was not about patriotism or politics, but about how best to honor young enlistees who — everyone agrees — deserve more recognition.

“Everyone on this board is in agreement that we should be honoring our students who enlist in the military in a meaningful way,” said Sandy Evans (Mason). “It’s not pro-honoring the military and con-honoring the military — it’s pro and pro.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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