Pacific Islander students decry ban on leis at graduations

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Some Utah high schools have barred students from wearing leis and other ornamentation during graduation ceremonies, a restriction that the state’s Pacific Islander community said feels discriminatory.

Some schools around the state have sought a uniform look for graduating students that limits distractions or special attention, resulting in bans on ornamentation, the Salt Lake Tribune reported Monday.

For Pacific Islander students, the leis represent their culture, heritage and more.

“Leis are a token of love and appreciation for all that they’ve done in high school,” said M. Vida Hafoka, whose son recently graduated from Westlake High School in Saratoga Springs.

Angie Lotulelei wanted her daughter to be able to wear leis during West High School’s commencement ceremony, which was held at the Huntsman Center at the University of Utah. Lotulelei wore leis when she graduated from a Salt Lake City high school in 1994.

“They don’t want us to display our cultural customs or traditions,” Lotulelei said. “It takes away what sets them apart, what makes them special. We do that to celebrate their difference.”

For some schools, the bans were placed by the venue for the ceremony. The Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City where several ceremonies were held this year, including four ceremonies for the Salt Lake City School District, banned all leis.

“The leis are always a problem,” said Aaron White, the center’s director. “The students are excited. They’re hugging. Flowers and leaves fall off on the floor.”

Cleaning up can be costly, White said, especially when there are four ceremonies held on the same day. It would have cost an additional $500 to send in a rush cleaning crew between the ceremonies, he said.

The Salt Lake City School District challenged the policy but was not able to change it, said Claustina Mahon-Reynolds, the district’s supervisor of educational equity and advocacy.

“The discussion started a little late for this year, but we’re hopeful that for next year they might be a little more inclusive,” Mahon-Reynolds said.

If the center is not willing to change its policies for high school graduations, the district may go somewhere else, Mahon-Reynolds said.

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