Nyree Holmes was escorted out of Sleep Train Arena on Tuesday by deputies before he could officially receive his high school diploma.
His crime: He refused to remove a kente cloth from atop his graduation robes.
The 18-year-old student from Cosumnes Oaks High School in Elk Grove said he wanted to feel more connected to his ancestors, so he decided to wear the kente cloth – a piece of fabric that is worn during important occasions by certain cultures in Africa. Holmes identified it as a cultural cloth from Ghana.
School officials did not take kindly to his decision, saying it violated graduation dress requirements. Holmes said one tried to persuade him to take the kente cloth off, and when Holmes refused, he said the official called the Sheriff’s Department to have him escorted out.
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“I’m a merit scholar and an AP student that is doing well,” said Holmes, who plans to study film at California State University, Fullerton. “I’m a very good kid.”
About 500 graduating seniors were at the 3:30 p.m. ceremony, along with hundreds of family and friends.
Holmes chronicled the event on his Twitter and Facebook accounts, drawing dozens of comments and national Internet attention. By Thursday, the story was trending on Facebook.
There has been a lot of misunderstanding about the incident, said Elk Grove Unified spokeswoman Xanthi Pinkerton on Friday after a news conference at Cosumnes Oaks High School. She said Holmes was allowed to walk across the stage when his name was called and received a certificate holder for his diploma. He shook hands with school district officials and posed for a picture with principal Maria Osborne while wearing his kente cloth.
I’m a merit scholar and an AP student that is doing well. I’m a very good kid.
Nyree Holmes, who was escorted out of Sleep Train Arena during graduation
Holmes said sheriff’s deputies were waiting for him at the bottom of the stage to escort him out of the arena. He wasn’t able to watch the rest of his classmates graduate or to participate in the end of the commencement ceremony, he said.
“I did walk the stage, but they tried to stop me,” Holmes told The Sacramento Bee. “The police did not get there in time for that to happen.”
A security guard later helped him to get back into the arena to retrieve his diploma, which all students were to receive after the ceremonies, he said. “He told me to continue achieving,” Holmes said.
Pinkerton said it was unfortunate that Holmes was escorted out of the commencement. “We would have preferred that the student would have complied. We wouldn’t have even gone here with that. It would have been nice not to have the image of a police escort.”
Cosumnes Oaks staff sent multiple reminders warning that students who did not comply with the dress requirements would not be allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony. The email specified that caps and gowns were not allowed to be decorated or adorned other than with medals, cords or pins received though the school.
Bobbie Singh-Allen, president of the Elk Grove school board, said the district “regrets how events unfolded in this instance; however there was no intent to discriminate against the student as the same rules applied to every graduate.”
Singh-Allen said she favors a review of the district’s policy “so that there is clear understanding of the differences between religious accommodations and acceptable dress code.”
Cosumnes Oaks staff sent multiple reminders to family members warning that students who did not comply with the dress requirements would not be allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony, Pinkerton said. The email specified that caps and gowns were not allowed to be decorated or adorned other than with medals, cords or pins received though the school.
“Despite multiple requests the student didn’t do what we asked,” she said
Precious Lao, 18, learned about the incident involving her co-worker from Facebook. The new graduates both work at Rockin’ Jump, a trampoline park in Elk Grove, Lao said.
“The schools don’t let us wear anything but the cords and the pins we earn from school,” said Lao, who also graduated Tuesday. Lao attended Monterey Trail High School in Elk Grove. “They don’t say why.”
Lao, who is Hmong, was surprised to hear about the dress code during a meeting about graduation attended by students and their parents. “My mom was disappointed,” she said. “I’m sure my mom would have given me some traditional jewelry to wear. ... I was disappointed and shocked to learn that we couldn’t wear anything to represent who we are.”
Lao doesn’t agree with the decision to remove Holmes from the commencement ceremony, but she doesn’t think the decision was made because he is African American. “I think the district and the school are trying to protect students from representing gangs or other things that may distract from the ceremony,” she said. “But the school, in turn, shouldn’t have gone to the length of escorting him out in front of the entire school.”
Novella Coleman, attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, said it could be problematic for a school district to allow students to wear any accoutrements not associated with the school, but then disallow another form of personal expression, such as a kente cloth.
Pinkerton said that each school establishes its own rules about graduation attire.
San Juan and Folsom Cordova unified school districts spokesmen said their schools also issue guidelines for what students may wear on their caps and gowns for graduation.
Trent Allen at San Juan said the district has no written policy. But he said, “Our practice is that students are not allowed to wear anything on the outside of their gowns and caps that is not issued as part of the school’s graduation program.” Twin Rivers Unified’s executive director of student engagement, Craig Murray, said graduation ceremonies are an opportunity for students to be recognized for their academic achievements with sashes and cords. “We don’t allow students to decorate their gowns and caps,” he said.
Holmes said he doesn’t regret wearing the kente cloth. “I was able to acknowledge my culture, my ancestry,” he said. “I want people to know that it’s not OK to not have a discussion about culture and religion in America. We are a very diverse country and we need to stop accommodating just one people.”
He hopes his newfound celebrity will encourage others to show pride in their culture. He plans to Skype with schoolchildren in Ghana who are following the conversation on Twitter.
Every graduation season controversy erupts over whether American Indian students can wear eagle feathers during commencement ceremonies. Last year students at high schools in Grand Forks, N.D., fought back against school district policy banning personal additions to graduation attire. The students wanted to wear eagle feathers, considered to be sacred in American Indian culture. They started a petition on Change.org and started a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #LetTheFeathersFly.
After a meeting between American Indian parents and school administrators, the ban was lifted.