Grad slight: Elk Grove teen booted from graduation ceremony for honoring African heritage

School, district officials reeling from unpopular decision

This is an extended version of a story that appeared in the June 2, 2016, issue.

In a zero-tolerance move that local education officials are defending, an Elk Grove high school student was booted from a graduation ceremony last week for a dress-code violation that honored his Ghanaian heritage.

Cosumnes Oaks High School senior Nyree Holmes took to social media shortly after school administrators had him escorted from the May 24 graduation ceremony at Sleep Train Arena.

In a series of posts that quickly went viral, the 18-year-old merit scholar says he was forced to leave the ceremony after refusing commands to remove the traditional kente cloth draped around his shoulders, a common accessory among students acknowledging their African roots during graduation ceremonies.

Holmes says he was allowed to walk the stage when his name was called. But as he descended the stairs on the other side of the stage, he says he was met by three security personnel and escorted out of the building.

On his way out of the arena, Holmes says he called his mother to explain what was happening. The family gathered outside, where Holmes says he and his dad were both initially prevented from picking up his diploma. Holmes says they were ultimately aided by a black security guard who led him through the exit to get it.

“And then he takes a pic of me and says ‘much love brother, stay up and achieve more,'” Holmes tweeted.

Holmes drew an outpouring of support on social media, as well as a smaller, predictable slew of racist vitriol. Enrolled in Cal State Fullerton, Holmes plans to study film and received a congratulatory tweet from actor Orlando Jones, who offered to discuss “film project ideas” once Holmes was settled.

The resulting social media outcry over the student’s treatment put school officials in damage-control mode. The Elk Grove Unified School District arranged a press conference three days later to contain the fallout.

In a blog posted to its website before the press conference, the district claimed the “student was prohibited from participating in the remainder of the school’s graduation ceremony for refusing to follow direction of school officials who were attempting to uphold the established dress code and for ignoring repeated requests to remove unauthorized non-school award regalia.”

Holmes says he was specifically asked by Matthew Mason, Cosumnes Oaks’ director of student activities, to hand over the garment. When Holmes refused, he says the teacher told him he would have him removed from the ceremony.

In an email, Mason said he wasn’t permitted to comment on the matter. “Unfortunately, it is my understanding that I must direct you to the Elk Grove Unified School District and Communications Director Xanthi Pinkerton to answer all media questions,” he wrote.

Mason’s profile on Rate My Teacher showed the quick effects of the controversy three days later. The teacher had an average score of 1.27 stars based on 13 reviews, six of which mentioned his role in the graduation flap.

The kente cloth that accented Holmes’ royal-blue graduation gown is an interwoven silk-and-cotton fabric that features bright geometric patterns, where each color has its own meaning. The green-and-yellow pattern worn by Holmes can symbolize spiritual renewal and wealth, for instance. It’s a somewhat common accessory for African-American students at graduation ceremonies.

The district attempted to shift the blame toward Holmes and his family, writing that “school officials were not given the opportunity to discuss with the family the student’s desire to wear the cloth.”

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department distanced itself from the unpopular decision.

Department spokesman Sgt. Tony Turnbull said that, while a department-employed school resource officer was present for Holmes’ removal, it was the Elk Grove Unified School District’s director of security who ordered it.

“Not our deputies,” Turnbull wrote in an email. “In fact, our deputies were dealing with a subject outside on a medical condition and conducting CPR. … This was a school decision.”