What’s new around graduation?
The close of the school year brings graduation and recognition ceremonies to campuses across the state.
“These community events bring hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of community members to our school grounds and are important milestones in the lives of students and their families,” said Robert Tuerck, CSBA assistant executive director, Policy and Governance Technology Services. “Governing boards, superintendents and staff are encouraged to review, update and communicate their policies and practices related to graduation ceremonies to ensure compliance with law, the safety of students and visitors, and a memorable experience that appropriately recognizes this significant educational achievement.”

Many districts set guidelines for the attire that participants in graduation exercises can wear. With the passage of Assembly Bill 1248 in 2018, students now may wear traditional tribal regalia or recognized objects of religious or cultural adornment at school graduation ceremonies. “Adornment” is defined as something that is attached to or worn with, but not replacing, the cap and gown. “Cultural” is defined as “recognized practices and traditions of a certain group of people.” Examples include, but are not limited to, eagle feathers worn by Native American students or Kente cloths worn by African American students as signs of the importance of the occasion. The law was not intended to allow students to adorn the traditional cap and gown with any item of their choosing.

Under the new law, local educational agencies retain the discretion to prohibit an item that is likely to cause a substantial disruption of the ceremony. It is recommended that LEAs require advance approval of any adornment so that these determinations are not made immediately before the ceremony. For example, CSBA’s sample board policy BP 5127 – Graduation Ceremonies and Activities, updated in March 2019 to reflect the new law includes optional language that students wishing to wear such adornments seek permission from the superintendent or designee at least 14 days prior to the graduation ceremony. Furthermore, high school students and parents/guardians should be given sufficient notice of the deadline and approval process.

“LEAs need to be very cautious when exercising the authority to prohibit an adornment worn by a student,” Tuerck advised. “The new law puts school officials in the position of deciding what constitutes a cultural adornment, and LEAs must be careful to implement this authority in a nondiscriminatory manner. Principals or other staff responsible for enforcing graduation attire need to be knowledgeable about the new law and the potential impact of denying permission to wear an adornment. The law sets a fairly high standard of review, predicting likely substantial disruption or material interference.”

Another issue impacting graduation ceremonies is the question of whether invocations, prayers or benedictions are allowed. Both the U.S. Supreme Court (Lee v. Weisman) and the California Supreme Court (Sands v. Morongo Unified School District) have ruled school-sponsored and school-directed prayer at public high school graduation activities is unconstitutional. However, the law is unclear in regard to student-led or student-initiated prayer at graduation ceremonies. In Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the Court found student-led prayers at football games to be unconstitutional, which could arguably be extended to graduation ceremonies. A federal district court in Indiana granted a preliminary injunction prohibiting a district from permitting students to lead prayer during a graduation ceremony when the invocation was chosen by the senior class through a school election where only one type of message, a religious message, was presented as an option (Workman v. Greenwood Community School Corporation). Based on these cases, CSBA’s BP 5127 prohibits both school-sponsored and student-led prayer. If LEAs are considering authorizing student-led prayer in their graduation ceremony, it is strongly recommended to consult legal counsel prior to any policy adoption or implementation.

For questions regarding these policies and regulations, please contact Policy Services at Policy@csba.org or call (800) 310-5772.