Cultural Tie Gets in the Way Of Graduation

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 10, 2005

Thomas Benya wore a braided bolo tie under his purple graduation gown this week as a subtle tribute to his Native American heritage.

Administrators at his Charles County school decided the string tie was too skinny. They denied him his diploma, at least temporarily, as punishment.

The bolo, common in contemporary American Indian culture, is not considered a tie by his public school in Pomfret. If Benya wants the diploma, he will have to schedule a conference with the administrators.

What his parents say they want is an apology from Maurice J. McDonough High School for embarrassing their son and failing to respect the Cherokee background of his father's ancestors.

"The schools in Charles County are asking him to ignore his heritage," Marsha Benya said as she turned to face her 17-year-old son. "I want you to be proud of it."

"I am proud of it," he said, sitting in her real estate office in Waldorf, where he plans to work this summer before enrolling at the College of Southern Maryland.

The high school is sticking to its policy. The dress code is mandatory for seniors who choose to participate in the graduation ceremony. And Benya was told during a dress rehearsal Tuesday that his black bolo with a silver and onyx clasp the size of a silver dollar was "not acceptable."

"We have many students with many different cultural heritages, and there are many times to display that," said school district spokeswoman Katie O'Malley-Simpson.

"But graduation is a time when we have a formal, uniform celebration. If kids are going to participate, they need to respect the rules."

Controversies over student attire at graduation are perennial, and school districts try to avoid confusion by sending letters to parents and seniors months in advance. In Prince George's County, for example, graduating seniors are told "they are not to wear any kind of additional accents," said schools spokesman John White.

"We set the standard to make sure all our ceremonies are formal and respectful," he said.

In March, Benya's high school sent a letter to parents and seniors explaining that "adherence to the dress code is mandatory," with the word mandatory in bold and underlined. For girls: white dresses or skirts with white blouses. For boys: dark dress pants with white dress shirts and ties.

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