'Act of Civil Disobedience'
I am writing to you in support of [McDonough High School Principal] Garth Bowling and [Vice Principal] Pat Cunniff in the Thomas Benya [bolo tie] incident. I saw this issue as Bowling and Cunniff saw this issue -- as an act of civil disobedience, not as a cultural issue. Bowling and Cunniff were dealing with a disobedient student. Nothing more. Nothing less.
In the eight years Bowling and Cunniff have held graduation ceremonies together, they have had to pull diplomas before for similar acts of defiance to the solemnity of the graduation ceremony. One year, in fact, five to six National Honor Society students (one of them a McDonough teacher's son) had their diplomas pulled for writing messages on their mortar boards. The next day they had to come in and discuss the situation and get their diplomas, which they all did. The pulling of a diploma is to ensure the formality and solemnity of the graduation ceremony. I, for one, want to see a formal and respectful graduation ceremony and not a free-for-all in which the students can wear whatever they want. We need standards. We need standards upheld.
This year McDonough High School was named one of the top 10 high schools in the Washington area and was rated in Newsweek magazine as one of the top 5 percent of the nation's high schools. Let us not forget this. It was in great part due to Bowling and his administrative team running a tight building so that the faculty can do what we do best -- instruct. We succeed because Bowling has high standards for our school and does not relax those standards.
The student got to march in the ceremony. He was not denied that privilege. He was not humiliated. He was talked to in private. The parents made it public. The graduation ceremony is a formal ceremony that celebrates the passing of students from our institution and our rules into society. It is not a place for freedom of expression or celebrating one's heritage. Bowling and Cunniff did their jobs and upheld the standards as they interpreted them for the entire student body. We need standards. We need standards upheld. I support my administration.
McDonough High School
Kudos to the Principal
Regarding Thomas Benya and his disregard for authority at McDonough High School graduation, kudos to Principal Garth Bowling for his stand to uphold the established dress code. I respect Benya's heritage. However, he was well aware of the rules, and he elected not to comply. Too bad proper parental guidance did not prevail; he should have received a good swift kick in the rear!
Should this lad complete his schooling at the College of Southern Maryland, will he then wish to wear a ceremonial headdress in lieu of cap and tassel? The residents of your community should be proud and happy to have the leadership of Bowling rather than bowing to the wishes of such foolishness. Let his diploma rot in the Post Office.
A Question of Courage
The contrast couldn't have been more extreme. Thomas Benya, part Cherokee, was denied a diploma from his Charles County high school because he wore a braided bolo tie under his graduation gown as a tribute to his Native American heritage. Across the country, in Boulder, Colo., graduating seniors from New Vista charter school were praised for their creativity, originality and uniqueness.
"We will miss your leadership and character," New Vista commencement speaker Anissa Butler told the students. "But those same qualities are why we want you to go out into the world. We need people to make us think, shake us off kilter and disrupt our normalcy."
In a book published in 1989 by the University Press of America, Lanham, author David Svaldi describes Indian-white relations this way: "By the mid-19th century, U.S. policy makers and military commanders were stating -- openly, frequently and in plain English -- that their objective was no less than the 'complete extermination' of any native people who resisted being dispossessed of their lands, subordinated to federal authority, and assimilated into the colonizing culture." Svaldi's research into the genocide of Native Americans as U.S. government policy raises the question: Does Benya's resistance to the Charles County school administrators' use of coercion and punishment to bring about unquestioning obedience represent misconduct on his part or an act of great courage?
Should Charles County act with similar courage and boot out these school administrators?
Standards Ensure Equity
It seems that many people, including some in the media, have overlooked a couple of important considerations in the McDonough High School bolo tie affair. No one in the school community would argue that there is anything wrong with a bolo tie. Thomas Benya would have been allowed to wear his tie any other day in his high school career. It was for this one event that he and his classmates were asked to observe a uniform dress code. The reason for this was not to discriminate against him or any other student but to ensure that the dignity of the graduation ceremony was recognized and maintained. In fact, such standards ensure that all students are treated equitably. In asking Benya to comply with the dress code, the administration at McDonough High School was making the kind of judgment call that parents and teachers make every day. If individuals in the community feel that the dress code for graduation needs to be modified, they may work to change it. However, it is unfair and inaccurate to call this a case of discrimination.
We also appear to be afflicted with a case of community amnesia. Within the past few weeks this same McDonough High School was recognized by The Washington Post Magazine as one of 30 exceptional high schools in the Washington metropolitan area. Under the leadership of Principal Garth Bowling, the school has risen to an elite status in both its academic record and its extracurricular excellence. Bowling and his staff members have accomplished this by a consistent application of high standards for both conduct and academics. The local newspaper is of the opinion that Benya "has certainly earned our respect and that of many, many people." The same can and should be said of the administration and staff members of McDonough High School.