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School, Grads in Dispute Over Ethnic Graduation Dress

May 23, 1996

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ An American Indian who hung an eagle feather from her mortarboard and two blacks who wore a multicolored African tribal cloth with their graduation gowns were denied their high school diplomas.

The school district said they violated a policy against wearing ethnic symbols at graduation.

The district is withholding their Muskogee High School diplomas and transcripts until they complete 25 days in summer school as punishment.

``I’m not going to be defined by the white man anymore,″ Danaj Battese Trudell, an American Indian, said Wednesday.

Ms. Battese Trudell and the two others, Garrica Johnson and Sydney Watts, are seeking the American Civil Liberties Union’s help.

``We do feel these young ladies have had their rights violated,″ said ACLU lawyer C.S. Thornton, who plans to meet with the students and the district. Thornton said he was told other students had been allowed to wear crosses.

Muskogee Schools spokeswoman Derryl Venters said the school board approved the dress code May 14 to restore dignity to a ceremony that had taken on ``a carnival quality.″ Students participating in Saturday’s ceremony were required to sign a statement saying they understood the dress code.

About 30 percent of the high school is black, and about 16 percent Indian. About 300 seniors participated in the graduation ceremony.

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