PETERBOROUGH - A debate similar to the one sparked by a ConVal High School graduate who wanted to wear his Marine dress uniform to commencement Saturday has played out before, but with significantly different results.
In 2009, a California student was in exactly the same situation. School officials in Saugus, just north of Los Angeles, initially denied the young Marine his request to wear his dress blue uniform at graduation.
After an intense lobbying campaign, the principal reversed his decision, and the school district later changed its policy regarding graduation attire.
A state legislator then introduced Chapter 296, which became law in California, guaranteeing that active members of the military can display full military regalia at graduation.
State Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, who has been involved in many issues affecting veterans and active military personnel, doesn't think that's likely in New Hampshire, given the state's tradition of local control.
"I don't think so," he said. "New Hampshire is so big on local control that I'd have to do some thinking on whether I would move forward with something like that. I think the schools should be able to fix this themselves, with pride, and be happy that a young man can complete his military training while still in school."
Peterborough state Rep. Peter Leishman, whose district is at the center of the controversy, expressed similar support for local control on the issue.
Local control has left the state with a patchwork of rules when it comes to things such as graduation attire. While Brandon Garabrant couldn't wear his uniform as he approached the podium for his diploma at ConVal, Tony Proulx, a senior at Somersworth High School, could wear his uniform at graduation ceremonies, according to Foster's Daily Democrat. The paper also reported that Devyn Butler, a Spaulding High School student, could not wear his Army sash.
Exception to the rule
Somersworth may well be an exception in the state when it comes to military uniforms.
"I've been in the business for 41 years as a high school principal and superintendent. Uniformly, kids always wear the same cap and gown at graduation," said Mark Joyce, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association.
But Joyce agreed that ultimately it's up to the school. "The school is the one giving out the diploma," he said.
Manchester School Superintendent Tom Brennan said he's never seen anyone at a graduation wear anything but a cap and gown. "My recollection is, as long as it's cap and gown, it's cap and gown for everyone," he said.
He noted that people can express their individuality with mortarboards, which are often elaborately decorated. Years ago, school administrators fought that. But as long as they are not obscene, they are welcome.
Brennan said Central and Memorial principals would not allow a graduate to wear anything but a cap and gown. At Memorial, graduates can wear sashes that signify the branch of military service they are entering.
An analysis of the issue published in 2010 in the wake of the California legislation, by the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, reported that not permitting students to wear their military uniforms to high school graduation ceremonies is commonplace.
"School districts have denied requests from military graduates in Ohio, Wisconsin and Texas. The policy reasons behind such denials are weighted with heavy religious and political undertones," the report stated. "School officials, as well as legislators, are concerned with how the creation of an exception to the graduation dress code policy may warrant similar protections for students requesting to wear cultural or religious dress to the ceremony. Accordingly, concerns have been expressed about the exception setting a dangerous precedent, moving beyond requests for students wanting to wear military uniforms toward requests for Eagle Scout uniforms, cross-dressing or Viking helmets."
Controversy put to rest
The report went on to say, "Others disagree with these policy concerns, insisting that a school board has great control over variations of the dress code at a graduation ceremony, just as they have been permitted to regulate the freedom of speech and expression in the school setting."
ConVal Principal Brian Pickering told the Garabrant family that Brandon was free to wear his dress uniform under his cap and gown until after the diplomas were handed out.
That would have presented a problem for the young serviceman, since Marine dress protocol demands that the uniform never be covered. The Marines stepped in to put the controversy to rest, at least for now.
Sgt. Bryan G. Lett, marketing and public affairs chief at the Marine recruiting station in Portsmouth, issued a statement on Friday supporting the school's decision.
"The United States Marine Corps would like to congratulate Pfc. Brandon Garabrant on not only graduating high school but fulfilling all of his educational requirements early, thus allowing him to ship to recruit training and become one of the newest members of our beloved corps," said Lett. "The United States Marine Corps is proud to have him amongst our ranks, but support the school's decision to have Pfc. Garabrant walk across the stage in a cap and gown, as this is recognition of his accomplishments at ConVal and the final chapter of his high school career."