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Cultural Tie Gets in the Way Of Graduation
Md. Boy Wearing Bolo Is Denied a Diploma

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.

That left Benya's classmates free to wear bright orange, red and striped ties under their gowns at the ceremony Wednesday at the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro. One senior girl wore a headscarf and long pants for religious reasons.

"The First Amendment protects religion, and we do everything possible to honor that," O'Malley-Simpson said. "There is nothing that requires us to follow everyone's different cultures."

The courts have ruled that students have limited rights to express themselves at school as long as their behavior is not disruptive. A 1969 Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines, sided with students who wanted to wear black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War.

David Rocah, a staff lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said there are limits to those rights. Carrying political placards or wearing a clown suit to graduation would presumably be disruptive. The question, he said, is whether a bolo tie under a gown is disruptive.

"There's nothing wrong with wanting graduation to be a formal occasion," he said, "but the idea that everyone should look the same -- they're not all the same."

Rocah called the school's interpretation a "narrow and cramped view of personal autonomy."

Benya grew up hearing stories about his paternal grandmother's father and grandfather, who lived in dismal conditions on a Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma. He attends powwows and has worn an heirloom turquoise and silver bracelet for as long as he can remember.

He favors black clothes and prefers working backstage with lights and sound to performing in plays. He said he wasn't looking to cause a scene.

"It's my way of relating back to my past and showing who I am," he said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company