Everett High seniors, from left, Avery Thompson, Lanie Thompson, Melissa Rosales-Alfaro and Saron Mulugeta sit together in front of their school on Monday, May 20, 2024, in Everett, Washington. The group have called to question their district’s policy that does not permit graduates to decorate their mortarboards or graduation clothing. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Everett High seniors, from left, Avery Thompson, Lanie Thompson, Melissa Rosales-Alfaro and Saron Mulugeta sit together in front of their school on Monday, May 20, 2024, in Everett, Washington. The group have called to question their district’s policy that does not permit graduates to decorate their mortarboards or graduation clothing. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

After student campaign, Everett schools allows custom graduation caps

“It’s a really good first step,” the Everett High School ASB president said. But the students still want relaxed rules for future classes.

EVERETT — Weeks from graduation day, Melissa Rosales-Alfaro was looking forward to decorating her mortarboard to reflect how proud she is to be a first-generation college student.

Saron Mulugeta wanted to decorate her graduation cap to thank her family back in Ethiopia.

But under district policy, no student can deviate from an outlined uniform.

The two Everett High School seniors, along with siblings Lanie and Avery Thompson, took the issue to district administrators, asking if they could decorate their graduation caps to wear at commencement in June. The decision was final, according to Everett Public Schools.

Everett High seniors, from left, Avery Thompson, Lanie Thompson, Melissa Rosales-Alfaro and Saron Mulugeta sit together in front of their school on Monday, May 20, 2024, in Everett, Washington. The group have called to question their district’s policy that does not permit graduates to decorate their mortarboards or graduation clothing. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Everett High seniors, from left, Avery Thompson, Lanie Thompson, Melissa Rosales-Alfaro and Saron Mulugeta sit together in front of their school on Monday, May 20, 2024, in Everett, Washington. The group have called to question their district’s policy that does not permit graduates to decorate their mortarboards or graduation clothing. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

The district ruled students couldn’t personalize caps and tassels because they are “considered a symbol of graduating class unity,” school district spokesperson Kathy Reeves said in an email.

What the district saw as unity, the students saw as “conformity,” Lanie Thompson said.

“It’s the last time we are all together,” added Avery Thompson, the ASB president. “I think it’s actually more unifying for every student to get to celebrate as an individual.”

Frustrated and confused by the district’s decision, the students kept lobbying for a change of heart.

“We have so much diversity in our school and representation,” Mulugeta said. “Why should it not be celebrated at graduation?”

Lanie Thompson, the school’s ASB vice president, met with Everett High School Principal Kelly Shepherd and the regional superintendent, Cathy Woods.

Shepherd supported the students’ wishes, Lanie Thompson said. And district leaders came back to the students with a compromise: Graduating seniors could decorate their cap with a country flag.

It wasn’t enough for the students.

A flag doesn’t encapsulate someone’s culture, Lanie Thompson said. So the students continued to lobby.

“The graduation ceremony is for us to celebrate our whole journey,” Rosales-Alfaro said. “So it’s super important that we get every little piece we could.”

Rosales-Alfaro started an Instagram account and petition to let other students know about their demands.

“We have spent the last four years celebrating and being told to find our individuality, only to not be able to express ourselves on that day,” the petition reads. “The commencement ceremony is for the graduates, not for the people in the stands.”

In just a few days, the petition amassed more than 500 signatures.

Then last week, a few days after the students first reached out to The Daily Herald, the third time was the charm for the Everett High School seniors.

Shepherd and Woods came back to the seniors to tell them administrators offered another compromise.

Students from Everett High School stand in line waiting to walk onto the floor for graduation at Angel of the Winds Arena on Saturday, June 15, 2018 in Everett, Wash. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Students from Everett High School stand in line waiting to walk onto the floor for graduation at Angel of the Winds Arena on Saturday, June 15, 2018 in Everett, Wash. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Graduating seniors could decorate their cap with symbols of “cultural significance.” The policy is an extension of a state law allowing graduates to wear symbols significant to their Native American heritage, Reeves said.

No words, college logos or symbols of high school accomplishments will be allowed on graduation caps. The students feel this was the best they’ll get.

“That doesn’t really match up with our end goal,” Lanie Thompson said. “But it’s good for this year.”

Principals are still working on a process to approve custom caps, Reeves said.

“It’s a really good first step,” Avery Thompson said. “But our big and overarching thing was, ‘We want freedom of expression for students.’ There’s also a lot of students who just want to put their accomplishments (on the caps).”

Reeves said the district appreciated hearing from its students and encourages students to share their perspectives.

“Commencements are a special time for all of our students and families,” she wrote. “We continue to work with students to help us balance the individual and collective spirit of these celebrations.”

Picking this battle for free expression at graduation wasn’t just for their own class of seniors. The four students want to make sure future classes have the chance to decorate freely, too.

“It doesn’t really end with us, because it didn’t start with us,” Rosales-Alfaro said. “It’s not going to stop here.”

Next fall, Avery Thompson will attend Swarthmore College to study political science. Lanie Thompson will go to Bryn Mawr College, in part to play soccer. Both schools are on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Mulugeta plans to study bio-engineering. Rosales-Alfaro wants to study public health. Both will attend the University of Washington.

Avery Thompson, Lanie Thompson and Mulugeta all serve on Everett’s Youth Advisory Board.

Everett High School graduation is set for 7 p.m. June 15 at Angel of the Winds Arena.

Jenelle Baumbach: 360-352-8623; jenelle.baumbach@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @jenelleclar.

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