Elk Grove student gets booted from graduation ceremony for honoring African heritage

An occasion to celebrate.


In a zero-tolerance move that local education officials are defending, an Elk Grove high school student was booted from a graduation ceremony this week for a dress-code violation that honored his Ghanaian heritage.

Cosumnes Oaks High School senior Nyree Holmes took to Twitter and Facebook shortly after school administrators had him escorted from the May 24 graduation ceremony at Sleep Train Arena.

In a series of posts that quickly went viral, the 18-year-old merit scholar says he was forced to leave the ceremony after refusing commands to remove the traditional “kente” cloth draped around his shoulders, a common accessory for students wanting to acknowledge their African roots during graduation ceremonies.

Holmes says he was allowed to walk the stage when his name was called. But as he descended the stairs on the other side of the stage, he says he was met by three security personnel and escorted out of the building.

“They tell me to leave with them and I said ‘sure guys let’s go,'” he tweeted.

On his way out of the arena, Holmes says he called his mother to explain what was happening. The family gathered outside, where Holmes says he and his dad were both initially prevented from picking up his diploma. Holmes says they were ultimately aided by a black security guard who led him through the exit to get it.

“And then he takes a pic of me and says ‘much lover brother, stay up and achieve more,'” Holmes tweeted.

Holmes’ posts drew an outpouring of support on social media, as well as a smaller, predictable slew of racist vitriol. Enrolled in Cal State Fullerton, Holmes plans to study film in the fall and received a congratulatory tweet from actor Orlando Jones, who offered to talk about “film project ideas” once Holmes was settled.

The resulting social media outcry over the student’s treatment put school administrators in damage-control mode. The Elk Grove Unified School District arranged a Friday press conference to contain the fallout.

In a blog post to its website before the press conference, the district claimed the “student was prohibited from participating in the remainder of the school’s graduation ceremony for refusing to follow direction of school officials who were attempting to uphold the established dress code and for ignoring repeated requests to remove unauthorized non-school award regalia.”

“Generally speaking,” the post continued, “it is within the District’s discretion and prerogative to impose rules for graduation ceremony dress code and attire which apply generally to all students, and which do not discriminate against any specific student viewpoint.”

“Discretion” might be the operative word.

Holmes says he was specifically asked by Matthew Mason, Cosumnes Oaks’ director of student activities, to hand over the kente cloth before crossing the stage. When Holmes refused, he says the teacher told him he would have him removed from the ceremony.

Cosumnes Oaks principal Maria Osborne didn’t respond to a request for comment. In an email, Mason said he wasn’t permitted to comment on the matter.

“Unfortunately, it is my understanding that I must direct you to the Elk Grove Unified School District and Communications Director Xanthi Pinkerton to answer all media questions,” he wrote.

On Friday afternoon, Mason’s profile on Rate My Teacher showed the quick effects of the controversy. The teacher had an average score of 1.27 stars based on 13 reviews, six of which mentioned his role in Tuesday’s graduation flap. One defender gave him 2.5 stars and wrote, “I mean he’s nice to me.”

The kente cloth that draped Holmes’ royal-blue graduation gown like a scarf is an interwoven silk-and-cotton fabric that features bright geometric patterns, where each color has its own meaning. The green-and-yellow pattern worn by Holmes symbolize spiritual renewal and wealth, among other things. It’s a somewhat common accessory for African-American students at graduation ceremonies.

But apparently not at Cosumnes Oaks. The district attempted to shift the blame toward Holmes and his family, writing that “school officials were not given the opportunity to discuss with the family the student’s desire to wear the cloth.”

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department distanced itself from the unpopular decision.

Holmes indicated in his tweets that he was escorted out by sheriff’s deputies. But department spokesman Sgt. Tony Turnbull said that, while a department-employed school resource officer was present, it was the Elk Grove Unified School District’s director of security who asked Holmes to leave and facilitated his exit.

“Not our deputies,” Turnbull added in an email. “In fact, our deputies were dealing with a subject outside on a medical condition and conducting CPR.

“This was a school decision.”

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