Student dons a Confederate flag on her mortar board at Palmer High graduation

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PALMER, Alaska (KTUU) - A Palmer High School student attended her graduation wearing a mortar board decorated with the Confederate flag, leading officials to remove her from a school sports team for the rest of the season.

School officials say the principal of Palmer High School, Paul Reid, reviewed the student’s mortar board and, “explained that the image was inappropriate for the venue, and a violation of the graduation handbook that students were made aware of well before the event.”

The student, who officials declined to identify, reportedly took a standard graduation cap to wear, but switched it out for the banned cap at the last moment, unbeknownst to administrators.

That student is said to have been frustrated by the decision, but she eventually agreed with it.

After the incident, Mat-Su Borough School District Superintendent Dr. Monica Goyette met with the student’s parents to “express her concern with the student’s behavior.”

The student was disciplined by the school and district. “Although the student is now a graduate and no longer in school, she was a member of a PHS sports team. PHS administration has removed her from the team for the duration of the season,” school officials said.

Reese Everett, Executive Director of Instruction with Matanuska Susitna Borough School District, was at the ceremony in early May and is in charge of running graduations. “Our graduations are polite, formal and dignified celebrations of all our students,” he said. “You only graduate from high school once.”

Everett said the decision by the student to don the cap was a “poor choice” and contrary to borough-wide policy regarding mortar boards. Four years ago, a student advisory board passed a resolution changing the rules regarding graduation caps. Prior to that point, caps had to be kept plain.

The policy given to students in the graduation handbook does not explicitly mention the Confederate flag, but it does state that “Graduation Cap decorations are allowable at the discretion of the school’s administration.”

“Students’ decorated caps must not display racial or ethnic slurs or symbols, gang affiliations, vulgar, subversive, sexually suggestive, or otherwise inappropriate language or images; promotion of products that students may not legally buy such as alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs; or anything that promotes harm to another or to one’s self.”

Everett says of the thousands of students that have graduated since then, this is the first time that a student has worn “inappropriate” imagery on their mortar boards.

However, not everyone agrees that a school policy can dictate what a student wears or how they express themselves at graduations.

“A school district can’t wipe away your constitutional rights,” said Casey Reynolds, communications director of civil rights group ACLU Alaska. “Generally speaking, courts have made it clear, your constitutional rights don't end when you walk into the school house.”

Although not familiar with this specific case, Reynolds said the general perspective of the ACLU is that schools have the ability to somewhat limit someone’s freedom of speech if the person was disrupting the learning environment.

Reynolds didn’t understand how a graduation qualified as a learning environment.

Everett said regardless of what a person felt about the Confederate flag, it was a balancing act maintaining first amendment rights and keeping people comfortable at a graduation. “What we constantly have to balance at this large events is the perception of others when they see something like that.”

On the question of whether the student understood the significance of the Confederate flag as a symbol, Everett, a former history teacher said, “Absolutely it is discussed.”

Across the borough, United States history is a mandatory one-year curriculum. “The Civil War, the Civil Rights movement are discussed in detail,” said Everett.

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