GRAND FORKS – When Grand Forks Central High School student SaNoah LaRoque graduates this spring, she wants to wear an eagle feather.

In her culture, it’s an important symbol that indicates strength and honor, she said.

“It’s not just a decoration,” she said.

For years, American Indian students have been denied the request because of school policy. But within a few weeks, school administrators may reverse that decision.

If they favor student requests like LaRoque’s, it would be a first for the district and end a year of discussion between students and administrators on whether it’s a right.

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A local petition favoring students has been circulating online, with 367 supporters so far.

Districts across the nation have also been addressing the subject.

LaRoque said students should have a right to celebrate their culture in this way, regardless if they’re Native Americans.

“In my opinion, education is about preparing people to go into the world and be receptive of other cultures and backgrounds,” she said.

Conflict over policy

Many North Dakota high schools follow the same graduation attire policy, which doesn’t allow “personal additions” beyond the cap, gown, tassel and honor stole, said Assistant Superintendent Jody Thompson.

The intention of the policy is to maintain a uniform standard for all students, he said.

“But we clearly have a significant Native population, so we want to be respectful of their traditions and beliefs,” he said.

The policy of what can be worn at graduation varies among Fargo-Moorhead’s biggest school districts, according to officials contacted by The Forum.

Dave Lawrence, principal at Moorhead High School, said the issue hasn’t come up often, so it hasn’t been a problem.

“We ask that they wear the required outfit and keep the mortarboards clean,” Lawrence said.

But adding an eagle feather isn’t a deal-breaker for him, particularly if it’s done with dignity and not to draw attention away from others.

“I couldn’t imagine having a big problem with that,” Lawrence said. “I think we’d probably take each thing individually.

“One thing we try to stress to the kids is that this is kind of a group thing. We want it to be a nice ceremony for everybody,” Lawrence said.

“We don’t want everyone decorating their mortarboards so it looks like a NASCAR race,” he said. “It’s not about you, it’s about you and your 399 other classmates.”

But Fargo and West Fargo public schools take the position that the cap and gown is the graduation uniform.

“West Fargo High School’s policy is to not allow traditional cultural garb as part of the graduation ceremony,” spokeswoman Heather Konschak said. “Graduation day is about the graduating class as a whole and we ask that they all use the traditional cap and gown on that day.”

Fargo graduates’ cap and gown adornments stick with the traditional, spokeswoman AnnMarie Campbell said.

“Other than honor cords, they don’t allow anything to be added to the caps and gowns,” Campbell said.

Some say the Grand Forks School District makes exceptions for some cultures but not others.

Robert “BJ” Rainbow, an American Indian advocate and president of the North Star Council in Grand Forks, said he wonders why female Muslim students can wear hijabs at graduation.

“The conflict is uniformity,” he said.

Thompson said this allowance has more to do with how frequently the hijab is worn.

“For our English language learner and refugee families, since that is part of their daily attire, that’s part of their cap and gown,” he said.

Healthy discussion

School administrators, parents and students have had healthy discussions on the topic, Thompson said.

Last week, they had a “very positive” discussion with a group that included members of the Native American Parent Advisory Committee, which formed just this fall to help oversee the way two Native American education grants are spent.

Administrators developed a greater understanding of the significance of the eagle feather to their culture, he said.

“It was very instructive,” he said.

Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt contributed to this article