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Graduation brouhaha

WALDORF, Md. - The media furor over the case of the Maryland high school
senior whose diploma was withheld because he wore a bolo tie to honor his
Cherokee roots is another instance of not letting facts get in the way of a
good story.

According to Ann Marrimow of The Washington Post, graduating senior Thomas
Benya's diploma is "being withheld" because Benya broke the dress code by
refusing to wear a regular tie and instead wore a bolo tie "as a subtle
tribute to his Native American heritage." Benya's mother, Marsha, is
reportedly considering legal action against the school unless an apology is
made to her son.

The story, which hit many major newspapers throughout the country, even
prompted a response from Gov. Brian Schweitzer, D-Mont., who stated that
"In Montana and anyplace in Indian country, a bolo tie is dressed up."

Let's look at some unreported facts in this story.

As stated by Ronald Cunningham, associate superintendent of Charles County
board of education:

Benya was advised following the graduation ceremony (in which Benya
participated) that he could pick up his diploma the following day.

A few days later, when Benya had not picked up his diploma, the principal
of his school sent it to him via certified mail. As of this printing, the
diploma had not been signed for at the post office. (An interview with
Benya revealed that the family had been too busy to pick up the document,
but new information suggests the family is refusing to accept the diploma
until school's officials provide a public apology.)

A fellow graduating senior reportedly wore a head scarf and long pants for
religious reasons, without repercussions, after the student and her family
requested permission to do so. They approached school officials in March
after the senior class had been notified of the graduation ceremony's
required dress code. Benya chose to wait until graduation rehearsal to
advise the principal of his plan to wear a bolo rather than a traditional
knotted tie.

Benya said he was not aware he had this option, and merely thought a bolo
tie is considered a tie. While he stated that he had no idea his diploma
would be withheld, he does admit having a discussion with the school
principal at graduation rehearsal about how wearing a bolo tie would be
considered inappropriate.

When asked whether the school district or principal would be willing to
apologize for being "disrespectful" of Benya's expression of heritage,
Cunningham replied: "We don't settle student issues in the media. The
principal is willing to meet with the Benya family privately to resolve the
matter."

This tempest in a teapot boils down to two real issues:

Who has disrespected whom? The school reprimanded Benya for deliberately
breaking the stated dress code, when the consequences for doing so were
clearly spelled out. Despite this reprimand, the diploma was made available
within 24 hours.

Benya and his family feel his right to express his Cherokee roots was
disrespected. But let's look at how an American Indian elder handled the
exact same situation. The Post reported that former Colorado Sen. Ben
Nighthorse Campbell, Northern Cheyenne, remembers asking then-House Speaker
Jim Wright for permission to break with tradition in 1987 and wear a bolo
tie in Congress. Campbell is quoted as saying, "It was never contested. No
one ever complained."

Second, fighting for the right to wear a bolo tie - a not well-known symbol
of Cherokee heritage - is questionable. It's known more commonly as
"Western wear" sported by as many "cowboys" as "Indians." Marsha Benya
reportedly cited the long history of Indians being "pushed around" and is
quoted as saying, "If he had not stood up for himself, he would have been
part of the problem of Native Americans being treated in this way."

With many battles won and lost, and many more ahead of us, can't we choose
them a bit more wisely?