AMITE — The Tangipahoa Parish chapter of the NAACP called for the resignations of the parish’s school superintendent and three School Board members Monday, after the Amite High School valedictorian wasn’t allowed to participate in his graduation ceremony last week for refusing to shave his beard.
Patricia Morris, president of the parish’s NAACP chapter, said Superintendent Mark Kolwe and board members Walter Daniels, Brett Duncan and Rose Dominguez should resign.
Andrew Jones, a 4.0 GPA student and standout athlete headed to Southeastern Louisiana University on academic and athletic scholarships, said the district’s dress code policy banning beards is “ridiculous,” and he supports Morris’ call for those district officials to step down.
Jones said he had been allowed to wear his beard all year, with no warning until the morning of graduation practice that he would have to shave it or be barred from the ceremony. He said he trimmed it to a goatee for graduation but refused to shave completely because he feels the beard is part of his identity.
Instead of giving a valedictorian’s speech, Jones watched from the stands with his family as his classmates walked across the stage to receive their diplomas.
Kolwe, the superintendent, said Jones had multiple opportunities to abide by the district’s policy, beginning on April 29 — nearly three weeks before the May 18 ceremony — when the students received a copy of all the requirements for participation.
“That document clearly stated that all students were to be clean shaven for the graduation ceremony,” Kolwe said.
Jones was again reminded on May 9, with his mother and aunt listening via speakerphone, Kolwe said.
Other students with facial hair shaved before the ceremony, including three who came to the event unshorn and removed their beards in the assembly center with razors and shaving cream provided by district officials, Kolwe said.
Jones was the only one who refused to comply, despite his family’s urging, Kolwe said.
But Morris contends other students were allowed to participate in their graduation ceremonies wearing full beards, including students at Hammond Magnet High School and Ponchatoula High School.
Duncan, a board member representing Hammond, said one student at Hammond was allowed to wear a full beard at graduation because he has a documented medical condition that makes shaving problematic.
Dominguez, who represents the Ponchatoula area, said she was not aware of any Ponchatoula students with facial hair participating in their ceremony. Two students were excluded for other dress code violations, though: a boy who did not wear a tie and a girl who did not wear plain black, heeled shoes.
Both Duncan and Dominguez said they have no intention of resigning.
Daniels, the third board member Morris named for ouster, could not be reached for comment. He represents the Amite area.
Duncan said the mother of the bearded graduate from Hammond called him Monday, concerned that photographs of her child were being used to advance the NAACP’s agenda.
“She was very, very upset that the NAACP was trying to use her child as part of this argument,” he said.
Morris said Jones’ right to wear a beard should be protected under the First Amendment’s freedom of expression clause. She said the administration’s stance on the issue is part of a larger picture of discriminatory behavior that has kept the district embroiled in desegregation litigation for more than 50 years — a claim district officials flatly denied.
Sabrina Davis, one of Jones’ aunts, said the policy is inherently unfair and was applied unfairly in her nephew’s case, but she stopped short of saying it was racially discriminatory.
“We taught Andrew to stand up for what he believes in,” Davis said. “This is not for publicity or likes. … He is not a spoiled child. He chose to work hard to have a 4.0 and it paid off, so why take that away from him like that? That was his moment, and he’ll never get it back.”
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