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Originally published by The 19th. Your trusted source for contextualizing education news. Sign up for our daily newsletter.
What should have been a joyous occasion for 20 students from Summer Creek High School in Houston was marred by controversy after an administrator demanded they remove their traditional Mexican stoles before crossing the stage during their graduation last month.
The students, 16 of whom were young women, belonged to the Spanish National Honor Society Club for high school students enrolled in Spanish and Portuguese classes. They wore the brightly colored stoles — also known as sarape sashes — to reflect their membership in the academic organization and to represent their cultural heritage. Their sponsor had received official approval before distributing the stoles. Still, an administrator found them unfamiliar enough to assume they were not allowed. The removal of the stoles reflected once again how dress codes, with their emphasis on uniformity, overwhelmingly affect girls and people of color, even on a day when students and their families celebrated a major academic milestone.
Judy Bautista, who just resigned as a Spanish teacher at Summer Creek to complete her doctorate, took viral footage and tried to intervene after she said the official “snatched” the students’ stoles just before they took the stage to graduate. The stoles were returned to the students after they crossed the stage. Bautista, who also served as sponsor of the Spanish National Honor Society Club, told The 19th that a pattern of cultural insensitivity at the school contributed to the administrator’s actions.
In response to the video, national civil rights groups, including the League of United Latin American Citizens, are calling for action to be taken against Trey Kraemer, assistant superintendent of high schools for the Humble Independent School District. Although district officials say that the Summer Creek students should have been allowed to wear their stoles, they insist racism wasn’t the motive behind the actions of the administrator. Kraemer told Bautista in the video that he didn’t realize the sashes were approved graduation attire. In a statement, the district said that a campus administrator approved the stoles but did not communicate that decision to others. Since the process did not go through “full approval,” it resulted in confusion on graduation day.
Now, LULAC is working to get a statewide policy implemented to prevent similar disputes from occurring in the future. Activists also intend to speak out at HISD’s school board meeting Tuesday, according to Sergio Lira, the president of LULAC’s Houston-area chapter. He said he plans to ask the trustees to establish local policy to address the controversy.
Across the country, school officials in recent years have barred ethnic dress at commencement ceremonies — singling out, among other groups, Black and Pacific Islander students from wearing kente cloth and leis, respectively. It’s part of a wider discussion about school dress codes, which routinely make headlines and often lead to legal action for disproportionately targeting girls, gender-nonconforming youth and students of color.
Shauna Pomerantz, author of “Girls, Style and School Identities: Dressing the Part” and professor of child and youth studies at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, told The 19th last year that dress codes serve to uphold white, patriarchal, middle-class, heteronormative values.
“The administrators don’t always get gender training or anti-racist training,” she said. “So they need to be educated on how this hidden curriculum is functioning in their school policies.”
She said outrage on social media has raised awareness about how dress codes reinforce inequity. “Social media has been an incredible spreader of information. It’s also been an incredible educator so that kids have become quite political. They're aware of their rights. They’re aware of what’s going on in the world. They’re aware that they can protest. So I do think that when outside people get involved — particularly adults, lawyers, parents — administrators get nervous. They’re like, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is going to be a PR disaster.’”
After Bautista’s clip went viral on TikTok, Humble ISD issued a statement calling its graduation dress code dispute “an honest mistake due to a misunderstanding” and denied that any group of students had been targeted. It said that Spanish NHS members had not worn the stoles at previous graduations. The statement said that Spanish NHS members at the district’s four other high schools wore honor cords instead of stoles, contributing to the confusion.
“Humble ISD apologizes to students who were not allowed to wear stoles and is reaching out to students to offer them a graduation portrait of them wearing the stole,” the district stated.
Lira, the LULAC official, suggested the situation could have been prevented. “I’m an experienced administrator,” said Lira, a former assistant principal and trustee for the Houston Independent School District. “I’ve organized and I’ve worked in many graduations. I never took away anyone’s honor stole to begin with because that is something they’ve earned. Number two, anything that perhaps may be offensive or distracting, like blinkered lights on your cap or something that’s just flagrantly outrageous, we may ask the student to remove, but in all my 20 years of working in high school, I’ve never had that opportunity to do that because most students are respectful, and they just want to show their happiness and their pride and their cultural heritage.”
Lira added that he doubts this incident would have occurred with Latino administrators in charge because he believes they would have been more culturally sensitive. Humble ISD, which includes over 48,000 students, is a diverse school district but some schools are in heavily White areas and others are in mostly Black and Latino communities. The district is about 38% Hispanic, 31% white and 25% Black, but no Latinos sit on the school board.
“This is really a defining moment,” Lira said. “This is really symbolic of the cultural wars that are happening here in Texas. This is really a symptom of that big problem at the state level.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has recently sparked controversy for shipping migrants from Latin American countries out of the state, supporting school vouchers that undermine public education and backing censorship of books in schools that address race, sex, gender and LBGTQ+ issues.
Lira said that anti-Mexican sentiment in parts of Texas has been ongoing for generations. He hopes a statewide policy can prevent future graduation dress code controversies. He plans to contact elected officials in the region about updating the state’s education guidelines so that ethnic dress or cultural emblems aren’t prohibited at graduation.
Bautista contends that anti-Mexican sentiment factored into the incident because other students of color, including Black, Puerto Rican and Venezuelan youth, were allowed to wear stoles that reflected their ethnic heritage.
She said she had secured permission for the graduating members of Summer Creek High’s Spanish National Honor Society Clubs to wear the stoles weeks before the ceremony. Bautista first presented the stoles to the students at a Cinco de Mayo ceremony and had to get school officials to sign off on the purchase, she said. Although the sashes represent the Mexican heritage of the students, they also reflect that these youth completed 100 hours of community service, she explained.
Bautista said that she resigned, in part, because she found the district’s mostly white leadership to be unsupportive of the Mexican American community.
“They weren’t providing Spanish translation to parents,” she said. “Open houses weren’t available to parents in Spanish. Services in Spanish were not provided … to parents whatsoever.” She said a lack of office and other personnel makes it hard for Spanish-speaking parents to raise concerns they might have or feel truly connected to the school community. Bautista also said that some students have previously complained of racism, alleging that a staffer referred to students as “You Mexicans.”
Jamie Mount, Humble ISD’s chief communications officer, said that Bautista’s “description of events is not accurate.” Mount said that Summer Creek High School held freshman orientation for Spanish-speaking parents and has front office staff members who communicate in Spanish. “Interpreters are provided for parent meetings when needed,” Mount said, adding that the district investigates allegations of racism. “The school did not receive a report of what she alleges was said,” according to Mount.
Bautista’s graduation footage has led to an outpouring of community support. The professional soccer club Houston Dynamo FC offered the students free tickets to a game. And a local resident, Paula Carrasco, who taught science in Humble ISD more than a decade ago, has offered to hold a celebration for the honor students. She was outraged when she saw Bautista’s recording.
“The students are graduating with the Mexican stole that represents their heritage, our heritage,” she said. “It represents the time and talents and love and support that it took to get through high school. It’s not easy being a student who was a product of the pandemic as well as to have graduated with their achievements within their organizations or clubs. So, just imagine, they’re about to walk the stage and this is literally being taken from under you. That just really broke my heart for them.”
Bautista and Lira are grateful for the support, but they also want the school district to take accountability. Bautista said that the issue is about more than students complying with a dress code for the sake of uniformity. The stoles and sashes of her students are deeply personal.
“You cannot rip apart someone’s identity,” she said. “The people who don’t understand didn’t have to go through the struggles as Latinos that we do, the struggles of helping our parents or working nights. It’s like you’re taking my Mexican away, and I just have to be American in order to receive a diploma. That’s pretty much what they’re telling these students: ‘You cannot be Mexican. You just have to be American.’ And that’s just not right.”
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