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Ethnic officials assail ban on leis at rites

SHARE Ethnic officials assail ban on leis at rites

Utah's ethnic office directors want to see the state's true colors reflected at graduation ceremonies, so they were alarmed by a Woods Cross High School policy that, to them, prohibits cultural expression.

Leis, and any other such non-traditional adornments, were banned at Woods Cross' commencement exercises earlier this month. Principal Rick Call said such "paraphernalia" was verboten as part of "doing everything to help our ceremony be more dignified and formal."

Bill Afeaki, director of the state Office of Pacific Islander Affairs, called that "preposterous," and soon Hispanic Affairs director Tony Yapias, Black Affairs chief Bonnie Dew and Asian Affairs director Edith Mitko rallied around him. Together the four directors sent Davis School District Superintendent Bryan Bowles a letter of protest.

"Terming leis 'other paraphernalia' definitely shows gross insensitivity to a cultural phenomenon that is important to Polynesians," they wrote.

Since Call is leaving his Woods Cross post to become district curriculum director, the directors added, "We are very concerned that he will be influencing materials that will be offered in all classrooms . . . It is unacceptable to have the cultural insensitivity and bias that was demonstrated over the leis."

The school's ban "is a slap in the face to all ethnic groups," Yapias said in an interview. "We're telling our kids to stay in school, and then when they reach a milestone, we're saying, 'You can't wear this expression of your culture.' "

American Indian, Latino and Pacific Islander students drop out at disproportionately high frequencies, Yapias added. He and other advocates say many school districts have been slow to integrate ethnic cultures into their curriculum, instead teaching nochromatic history and social studies courses that omit people of color. Bowles, however, didn't budge on the school's policy prohibiting anything but a cap, gown and, if earned, an honors cord at graduation.

"To say it's a cultural thing to wear leis is really not accurate," said Bowles, a non-Polynesian who was vice president of Hawaii's Polynesian Cultural Center from 1984-1991.

He listed other Polynesian garments that he said are expressions of culture but emphasized that Woods Cross officials had the right to ban anything besides the traditional cap-gown-cord ensemble.

Graduates and their families "should respect the culture of the school," not express their own ethnic culture, Bowles said. "This was not a luau. It was a school ceremony, not a Polynesian ceremony.

"If you go to a football game at the University of Hawaii, the Polynesian students will often come over to the stands, and the families will give them leis . . . but they don't wear them during the game, because it's not part of the culture of football. It's not part of the uniform."

E-mail: durbani@desnews.com