San Diego Union Tribune: Bill would allow cultural regalia at graduations

Monday, June 19, 2017

As excerpted from the San Diego Union Tribune:

Rebekah Israel said she had waited years for the moment when she would receive her high school diploma while wearing an eagle feather, a power symbol that represents a rite of passage for her and other Native Americans. But then the moment was stolen from her, she said, as a woman from her school tried to snatch the feather from her mortarboard and scolded her for wearing it. “I felt really embarrassed, so I just cried right away,” she said about her graduation ceremony in June 2016. “I just grabbed the diploma really fast and rushed off the stage.”

It’s still difficult for the 19-year-old Santee resident to talk about the incident that happened a year ago at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park, where she was graduating with other students from the Charter School of San Diego.

“We went over there, and Rebekah was just torn apart,” said her mother, Kiana Maillet. “She told me that this woman looked at her feather and said, ‘You’re not allowed to wear that,’ and she reached for it. Nobody’s allowed to touch our feather. We’re supposed to protect them. She just broke down on stage in front of everyone.”

Similar incidents happen to Native Americans each year in California, but a bill with broad support by legislators could change that for the class of 2018. Israel lent her support by speaking about her experience before an Assembly subcommittee earlier this year.

“I told them I don’t want other students to feel upset when they’re walking and wearing their graduation cap,” she said. Israel was testifying in support of Assembly Bill 233, which already has passed the Assembly and just last week passed the Senate Education Committee. The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Todd Gloria, D-San Diego, is headed for the Senate Judiciary Committee next.

As Gloria explained, the bill would allow students in California public schools to wear adornments that represent their cultural or religion during graduation ceremonies.