- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 15, 2005

A Waldorf teenager and his family said yesterday that his high school owes him an apology because he was denied his high school diploma when he wore a bolo tie to his recent graduation.

Thomas Benya, 17, and his parents, who are of Cherokee descent, said school officials at McDonough High School in Charles County, Md., disrespected him and degraded his family’s heritage when they did not give him his diploma because of his bolo. School officials have said the bolo violated the school’s graduation dress code.

“I would like to be given my diploma by [the principal] in a dignified manner and place in front of my family and friends,” Thomas told reporters outside the Charles County Board of Education administration building.

The school district is not budging on its stance.

“We are trying to keep a reasonably formal ceremony,” said Ronald G. Cunningham, associate superintendent of Charles County Public Schools. “I would think the route for the family is to meet with the principal.”

Rules regarding graduation attire are created and enforced at the discretion of individual school principals, Mr. Cunningham said.

Thomas said he has worn a turquoise bracelet, key-chain adornment and other accessories symbolizing his heritage every day and to all school functions for about four years. He wore a bolo — a string tie held together with a round ornament common in the Southwest — to a formal school function and during rehearsal the day before graduation.

He said his American-Indian heritage is noted in his school records.

“They told him to put away his heritage for a day for the sake of conformity,” said James Benya, the boy’s father. “They consider it’s no issue at all, and that hurts.”

Marsha Benya, the boy’s mother, said she was appalled when her son was told in front of classmates that his diploma had been pulled and he would have to “discuss” the situation with the principal the next day.

Mrs. Benya said Vice Principal Patrick Cunniff told Thomas that he would bring the boy a tie to wear for graduation. Thomas told Mr. Cunniff that he would wear his bolo and was sent to the principal’s office.

Mrs. Benya said she went to the administration building, but officials were not there. She said that the principal told Thomas that he would not bar him from walking on the stage, but that he would be “disappointed” if Thomas wore his bolo.

“If the principal knew he planned on wearing it, he should’ve outlined consequences,” she said.

The Benyas recently received a slip from the post office indicating that there is a certified letter waiting to be picked up. They had not picked up the letter, which they think is the diploma, as of yesterday afternoon.

Mrs. Benya said she would rather not accept a diploma that has been mailed, “if it means [Thomas is] wrong.”

A letter describing graduation rules was sent home in March, leaving ample time for any questions to be brought to administration, school officials said. The letter also stated that students who violate graduation rules would have to pick up their diplomas the next day.

“There are rules,” Mr. Cunningham said. “There was a process to question that, and that all didn’t happen.”

Mr. Cunningham said school officials will review graduation dress codes in the fall as part of its annual evaluation of districtwide changes.

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