Anchorage School Board, superintendent discuss district policy on cultural regalia at graduation ceremonies

Anchorage School Board.
Anchorage School Board.
Updated: May. 18, 2021 at 10:33 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Shortly after its reorganization, and with newly-minted Board President Margo Bellamy at the helm, the Anchorage School Board met this week with several hot-button topics up for consideration, including the allowance of cultural regalia at school graduation events.

That discussion began within the meeting itself even before public testimony started, with a pair of ASD graduates pushing for the board to move toward relaxed restrictions of graduation garb in general, but more specifically, the allowance of Alaska Native-centered accessories and tribal headwear.

Superintendent Dr. Deena Bishop would detail in an interview later in the week some of the specific steps being taken to help protect students who choose to don cultural regalia during graduation events.

“Immediately, we communicated with all schools about the regalia and to ensure that they have communicated with their families,” she said. “We wanted all families communicated so that students as well as their families knew about being able to wear their cultural regalia.

“Our administration allows for more than cultural regalia, so it’s open to more things,” she continued. “There’s a process by which students get permission, if you will, and approval for that, and they wanted to be sure that they were all approved and communicated.”

Doreen Brown, ASD Senior Director for Indian and Migrant Education, said part of the plan for the future is to poll the district’s Native Advisory Committee for what it would like to see, and then open up discussion to community members as well.

“We’ll open it up to the Anchorage School District first,” she said, “but I think this also needs to be pushed forward statewide.

“Everyone has culture, so what is that going to look like,” she said, “and how are we going to make sure that represents the diversity of the school district?”

With it being graduation season, school leadership was directed to approve any cultural regalia, Bishop said, and if there were any issues or concerns, those were to be dealt with later.

“This is important enough that we take corrective action immediately,” she said. “We are scheduling an after-action in regard to graduation [...] to discuss the situation.”

The district currently has a policy in place that lets student apply to wear cultural regalia at graduation ceremonies, but that policy came under fire recently when two students were blocked from doing that. The district at that time said it would address the policy, though it wasn’t immediately clear how that would be done.

In her interview after the school board meeting on Monday, Bishop called the incident of a student’s cultural regalia being taken away “miscued,” and said she wants to make sure other students weren’t also turned down. The district is now taking a deep dive internally into its related policy, she said, analyzing it and determining if any changes should be made.

RELATED: Blocking students from wearing cultural regalia was wrong, principal says

Public support for that mission was also woven in throughout the board’s hours of public comment Monday night, in which several people made particularly impassioned cases for removing approval requirements for graduation attire.

“The status quo of not allowing cultural regalia by default is baked into the system,” said one meeting attendee, “so even when the policy is changed from the top, it’s not enforced or even understood at all levels of staff.”

Another person said removal of a student’s cultural accessories should never have happened and should never happen again.

“People of color are tired of having to explain ourselves, trying to bargain for rights and privileges we should’ve had from the get-go,” the testifier said.

Ayyu Qassataq, whose son had his custom-made headwear confiscated at West High School’s graduation ceremony, also had to relive her son’s recent suffering after the incident last week.

“Exactly one week ago, our family’s sealskin graduation cap was taken from my son,” she said. “As I sat there connecting that violation to the bigger picture of Alaska Natives’ historical experiences and education, memories of all our elders endured in boarding schools kept surfacing in my mind.”

Qassataq continued by expanding on the experiences of a close friend, briefly detailing some of the dismay experienced historically by friends and family.

“He’s told of Inupiaq students like me and my son,” she said, “brought (to boarding school) in fur parkas, mukluks, caribou skin pants, meticulously sewn with such care by families, having their clothing stripped and thrown into the furnace. This is living history.”

Brown called the incident with Qassataq’s son “devastating,” and said she was sad for any student that had to go through something similar.

“It resonates on almost a cellular level; this is historic,” she said. “It brought feelings from my parents, my grandparents, stories that we’ve heard of historical trauma when it has to do with education systems. Shame, disappointment, and also reflection: what do we need to do to make this better?”

Fervent testimony from school board meeting attendees is part of what Bishop said is now continued work to examine and potentially adjust policy that requires approval of certain graduation wear. While no official action was taken at the school board meeting Monday, Bishop acknowledged during her usual board address there that input on cultural regalia was overwhelmingly in favor of change.

“We’re working to review the process of administrative regulation,” she said during the meeting. “It is in its infancy. This is the second year it went into action. We want to do an after-action [...] and have a celebration of our cultures at graduation, which we haven’t in the past.

“The purpose of the (regulation) did not land on the people it was intended for,” she added, “or in a good way, an effective way, so it is being reviewed and we are spending time with after-action as soon as school is over.”

Qassataq reminded listeners on Monday night of perspective, and how that in itself would change how people view some of the restrictions directly affecting minorities.

“How do they feel that story might change if it came from an Indigenous person’s perspective?” she said. “The roots of this incident are systemic, and so too must be the solutions. Erasure is hidden in plain sight. So how do we take our blinders off?”

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