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Wichita Public Schools clarifies, tribal regalia allowed at graduations

Native American students were told they could not wear tribal regalia at graduation.
Published: May. 13, 2022 at 5:21 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - With graduation season upon us, some students were denied a right that’s been law in Kansas for several years.

At Wichita North High School’s graduation Wednesday, administrators told seniors Emilian Carrion and Carlo Hernandez they were not allowed to wear caps adorned with beadwork including an eagle and feathers, significant to Native American culture.

House Bill 2498 was signed into state law in 2018 allowing Native Americans to wear tribal regalia or objects of cultural significance at public events, including graduation ceremonies. State Rep. Ponka-We Victors, a Democrat from Wichita, expressed disappointment with what the Wichita North graduates encountered.

“I was angry I was upset. We’re four years since that happened, since [that House bill] was signed into law, and here we are dealing with the same thing, trying to fight for who we are as native people,” she said.

COMING UP AT 6: We hear from Representative Ponka-We Victors on House Bill 2498 (http://www.kslegislature.org/li_2018/b2017_18/measures/HB2498/). #kwch12

Posted by Lily Wu - KWCH on Friday, May 13, 2022

The families of Carrion and Hernandez reached out to Rep. Victors who, in 2018, was the lead sponsor of the regalia bill.

“It passed with bipartisan support. A lot of people, both Democrats and Republicans spoke up about it and said this is needed,” Rep. Victors said.

House Bill 2498 became law in 2018 with the signature of then-Governor Jeff Colyer. With the law apparently not realized Wednesday, families of the impacted teens said they were angered and hurt by the administration’s actions.

“Native Americans (have) been going through discrimination for years and years and years. It’s 2022 and it’s time to stop,” said April Perez whose grandson was not allowed to wear a mortar board decorated with tribal regalia.

Wichita Public Schools sent a statement explaining that Wichita North misinterpreted the law. The full statement is as follows:

“The Wichita Public Schools has guidelines for commencement ceremonies that do not allow students to decorate their mortarboards for commencement. In 2018, the Kansas Legislature passed a state statute that says state agencies may not prohibit an individual from wearing traditional tribal regalia or objects of cultural significance at a public event. The district’s Native American program and district administration provided information to our high schools concerning this statute. A judgement (sic) was made based on the interpretation of the statute at one commencement ceremony earlier this week. We acknowledge that the interpretation was not correct.

We are reaching out to those impacted to repair the harm caused. We have taken several actions that will become part of our annual review process as we prepare for graduation festivities.

This is a learning moment for our district and our staff, and we must and will do better.”

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