Broken Arrow woman sues school district over graduation plume removal

Collaborator: Broken Arrow Sentinel
Published: 05/18/2023, 12:08 AM

Written By: John Dobberstein

(BROKEN ARROW, Okla.) A Broken Arrow woman who was forced to remove an eagle plume from her mortarboard during graduation last year has sued the Broken Arrow Public Schools and two employees over the incident.

Read this story on the Broken Arrow Sentinel here.

The lawsuit filed by Otoe-Missouri Tribal member Lena Black in Tulsa County District court alleges BAPS and employees Karen Holman and Lesa Dickson violated her religious and free-speech rights.

The suit alleges the two employees attempted to physically remove the plume from her mortarboard in front of her peers, “leaving her distraught and humiliated.” Black seeks $50,000 in compensatory damages, an unspecified amount of punitive damages and a jury trial.

BAPS spokeswoman Tara Thompson said the district hasn’t been served with a court filing on behalf of Black and declined to comment on the lawsuit Wednesday.

According to the lawsuit, Black asked a school employee if it was appropriate to wear her plume on her mortarboard during graduation. Black states she was told it was appropriate and was not given any other information or instructions.

The plume was given to Black when she was 3 years old at a pluming ceremony and was considered sacred to Black and her family, her attorneys said.

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The filing states while Black was in line to graduate, she was approached by Dickson and Holman and told she could not proceed to the graduation ceremony with her eagle plume attached to her mortarboard because it was a prohibited “decoration.”

Black alleges she tried to explain the importance of the plume and why it wasn’t a decoration, but school officials “ignored” the explanations and attempted to remove the plume from her mortarboard.

Black, who said she has an anxiety disorder, became distraught and collapsed to the ground in the presence of other students, faculty and staff, and school officials continued to try to remove the plume, the lawsuit alleges.

Black eventually walked across the graduation stage holding the damaged eagle plume in her hand. The lawsuit notes that other students were wearing secular stoles, cords and other items to the graduation, as well as religious items such as crosses and hijabs.

Gov. Kevin Stitt recently vetoed Oklahoma SB-429, which would have reinforced Oklahoma’s commitment to allowing Native American students to express their free speech and religious freedom at graduation ceremonies. Stitt said school districts should be able to set their own dress codes.

“Should this bill become law, the proverbial Pandora’s box will be opened for other groups to go over the heads of local superintendents and demand special favor to wear whatever they please at a formal ceremony,” Stitt said in his veto message.

“If schools want to allow their students to wear tribal regalia at graduation, good on them; but if schools prefer for their students to wear only traditional cap and gown, the Legislature shouldn’t stand in their way.”

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Thompson told the Broken Arrow Sentinel that BAPS has a process by which students can represent their tribal, religious or ethnic heritage during graduation.

“Not only do we make exceptions for the Native American tribes, but we also allow other religious and ethnic heritages to be celebrated by the wearing of specific items,” Thompson said. “We are not waiting on any law from our state legislature or at the federal level to be able to celebrate our students' diverse backgrounds. This process was also in place last year.”

Thompson said the district’s communication staff has “executed a very thorough, month-long communication plan” about graduation this year and nearly 60 students have already completed the process to deviate from the traditional dress code. Thompson provided a link for pertinent information regarding graduation and guidelines, and a form for any students wishing to add to their attire.


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