Blocking students from wearing cultural regalia at graduation was wrong, principal says
‘I totally apologize to these kids that have been affected by this.’
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - After two students with Indigenous heritage were denied the ability to wear cultural regalia at West High School’s graduation ceremony, the Anchorage School District is calling for a swift review of its policy regulating graduation attire, has apologized to the families affected, and said it’s immediately relaxing its procedure to make it easier to include regalia during graduation ceremonies.
Superintendent Deena Bishop’s response came after she learned the sealskin graduation cap worn by West High School senior David Paoli, 17, was taken from him by school staff just prior to Monday evening’s ceremony. His mother, Ayyu Qassataq, made the hat for herself last year to wear during graduation for her master’s degree.
Paoli would have been the second family member to wear the cap, which honors the family’s Inupiaq culture. A school official took the hat from Paoli and gave him a standard black graduation cap as a replacement.
Qassataq said the family was told the cap was against district policy. West High Principal Sven Gustafson said it was a miscommunication, and was an error.
“I am absolutely sorry about the hurt this has caused to them and their cultural ties, traditional ties, as well to all people of Alaska — the first people of Alaska,” Bishop said in a Tuesday interview. “And I’m committed to correcting and to fix things for the future.”
This is the second year the school district has offered an option for students to wear traditional regalia. The policy was created to make it possible for students to wear regalia, but with guidelines that would allow the district to deny requests that were misuses of the privilege, or clearly harmful.
A second student, 18-year-old Ivalu Blanchett, chose to boycott West High’s graduation when she sought but was denied approval to wear a traditional beaded Inuit shawl, handmade by her mother.
“I thought it was the most appropriate thing that I could wear with the cap and gown because I really felt like it incorporated quite well for this specific ceremony,” Blanchett said in an interview from her family home in Anchorage. “And so to hear that it was denied was really shocking and hurtful. I got myself to this great accomplishment and I wasn’t allowed to fully express what brought me here, and my identity and who I am now.”
Instead of attending graduation alongside her peers, Blanchett celebrated in her backyard with close family. Her grandmother blessed her. The family danced a prayer. It honored her accomplishments, her next chapter in life, and her mixed heritage: Inuit from Greenland, Yup’ik and Black.
“I decided to have a private graduation ceremony with my family so that I could celebrate the way that I wanted to and embrace my culture,” Blanchett said.
Bishop said the experiences of Paoli and Blanchett exposed problems in the district’s graduation attire policy.
“This absolutely is evidence that it needs to be revisited. It didn’t work for this to happen,” Bishop said.
Blanchett and Paoli’s parents think the issue goes deeper. Having to get permission in the first place is itself a problem, they said.
“Under no circumstances did I expect that we were asking for permission,” said Lauren Blanchett, Ivalu’s stepmom. “It was our understanding that this was a new policy, we were really excited to participate, and that we were giving the school a heads up for their request of what our traditional regalia would be.”
“The first thing he said to me after I hugged him on the field was ‘They took my sealskin cap, Mom.’ It’s unjust in so many ways,” Qassataq said. “It was unjust to have to ask for permission or seek approval from the school district in the first place. But we did it and this still happened.”
Qassataq said in a state where boarding schools and public education were tools used to strip students and families of their Alaska Native culture and knowledge, being told in 2021 that one can’t display and honor their heritage during graduation is a stark reminder that the historical effects of those systems linger today.
“Fast forward to today. When my son, my firstborn, was stripped of the one piece of cultural regalia he had in order to demonstrate honor and pride in who we are as Inupiaq people, gutted me,” Qassataq said. “I sat there at the ceremony and I was completely outraged. The layers of injustice, violence in the education system has inflicted on native people and continues to in different forms.”
“I feel terrible about it,” Gustafson said in an interview Tuesday.
“I totally apologize to these kids that have been affected by this,” he continued. “The last thing I wanted to do is have kids not be able to wear their regalia, because that‘s what we are all about. We are a diverse school and we try to celebrate our diversity and try to celebrate every kid. We want all of our kids to feel great, especially in the No. 1 most important ceremony of their entire career, graduation.”
Gustafson said he’s already had conversations among his staff, other principals and with the school district to clarify the intent of the policy and to take steps to prevent its further misapplication.
Bishop said one immediate change is easing the prior approval requirement on regalia. She said students who want to wear regalia but didn’t receive pre-approval before the deadline can still reach out to their school to make it happen.
“I think that that needs to be implemented throughout all future graduations, whether it be even just kindergarten graduation or high school or college,” Paoli said. “I think it should be implemented across the state so that we can wear our regalia.”
“I really feel like I was denied the opportunity to show who I was, what I worked for and how my culture identity has helped me get to this point, how it uplifts me,” Blanchett said.
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