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School draws line on grads’ leis

Honor cords only thing allowed at Woods Cross

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A flower lei drew a line this week between a high school rule and a family celebration.

Kaili Tonga, 17, hoped to walk across the Woods Cross Regional Center stage wearing a lei given to him by his mother. Thursday was graduation day for his Woods Cross High School class, and he wanted to show pride in his Polynesian heritage.

"The only thing allowed on the cap and gown are the authorized school cords. Other paraphernalia isn't allowed. It's not part of our ceremony," said Woods Cross High principal Rick Call. "This is not anything to put down any culture."

Other high schools, such as Highland and East in Salt Lake City, permit students, Polynesian and otherwise, to wear leis during graduation; the University of Utah had a lei-vending table set up outside the Huntsman Center on graduation day May 2.

But Call said his school's policy aims to nip such things in the bud. "It was just getting out of control," he said of graduation adornments in previous years. "This year the decision was made that we would do everything we could to help our ceremony be more dignified and formal."

Such insistence on conformity is "outrageous," said Bill Afeaki, director of the state Office of Pacific Islander Affairs. "That is telling us it's wrong to be brown. Do we need to be white to graduate?" The wearing of leis on special days "is part and parcel of our culture," he said, adding that a lei represents "the best that we have. It is made of the flowers that God has endowed us with." The blooms befit a celebration such as commencement, Afeaki added. "It's no different than wearing a tie."

Several days before graduation, Kaili's mother, Leilani Rosalez, had a lengthy telephone conversation with Call. She said he told her some graduating seniors had wanted to put graffiti on their caps and gowns, and that their families had planned to ring cowbells throughout the ceremonies. The school had lay down a law against such distractions, she was told. Wearing such accessories would be disrespectful to the students who wear special cords denoting their academic achievements. These "honor cords" are given for excellence in leadership and in various subjects.

To Rosalez, a lei is an honor cord. "It's what we do in our family. We wear leis as a sign of nobility and honor," she said. "It's not graffiti and it's not a cowbell."

Call told Rosalez that if a student doesn't want to follow school standards, he does not have to participate in the graduation ceremony. "I wanted him to walk across that stage like everybody else," Rosalez said. She agreed to have her son do so without a lei, but told the principal she would bring some flowers for afterward.

As the ceremony ended on Thursday, Rosalez and her sister tried to approach Kaili and place a lei around his neck, in order to take pictures. A guard stopped them. "He said, 'Do not cause any problems. We do not want to interrupt,' " according to Rosalez. "I don't know how to explain how that felt," to be barred from reaching her son at his graduation.

"We didn't allow any parents to come down to the ceremony," said Call. Family members must wait until afterward and then take their photos outside. They had been informed of the rules by a letter sent home from school, the principal said.

"I think that because I called the principal and told him I was bringing the lei, he wanted to make his point, and have his way," said Rosalez. "But I told him, 'This is not just your graduation. It's (Kaili's) graduation, too.' I wanted it to be special for him."

Leis themselves don't do any harm, Call acknowledged. It is rather a question of "where do you draw the line as to what's appropriate and what's not? If they can have a flower lei, they will say, 'I can put anything I want on my gown: candy, ribbons, bows.' "

Call, principal at Woods Cross for five years, is departing this summer to become the Davis School District curriculum director. He emphasized that the lei prohibition came from the school's joint staff-study committee, a group of teachers and administrators. "It's not my policy. But I'm enforcing it."

E-mail: durbani@desnews.com