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Paso students push grad cap decoration debate to school board

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Students at Paso Robles High School (PRHS) are petitioning for the right to decorate their graduation caps as a means of self-expression. But school administrators say graduation should be "a ceremony more than a celebration."

SELF EXPRESSION Paso Robles High School prohibits its graduating seniors from decorating their graduation caps, but students are petitioning to change that. - PHOTO FROM PASO ROBLES HIGH SCHOOL INSTAGRAM
  • Photo From Paso Robles High School Instagram
  • SELF EXPRESSION Paso Robles High School prohibits its graduating seniors from decorating their graduation caps, but students are petitioning to change that.

Zelbert Armer, a PRHS senior, started a petition about a month ago asking that his class be allowed to decorate their graduation caps. Despite gathering more than 700 signatures, PRHS Principal Anthony Overton denied the request, so Armer brought his petition to the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District board meeting on April 26.

"Our class and many other classes have not been able to have this, and other schools like Templeton and A-town have been doing it for years," Armer said during his public comment. "I just would like for us to be able to have a chance and a choice for our students to be able to decorate our caps."

Overton told New Times in an emailed statement that he believes altering the graduation regalia "takes away from the importance, tradition, and symbolic unity of being a Bearcat graduate."

"The crimson cap and gown represent the great accomplishment being celebrated each June, the Paso Robles High School graduating class as a whole," Overton said. "The cap and gown represent the unity and collective accomplishments of the graduating class and all the graduating classes that came before it."

Armer said cap decorations would allow students to show their culture and heritage, celebrate their achievements, or even pay tribute to a loved one who has passed away.

Superintendent Curt Dubost said he supports Principal Overton's choice to deny the request.

"I think that the ceremony is a ceremony more than a celebration," Dubost told New Times. "It's more for the community and the parents and grandparents and everybody, as well as the student graduating. To me, the ceremony needs to be more of a ceremony, and that to me speaks to more uniformity rather than individuality."

The board decided to take up the issue at its next meeting. School board member Tim Gearhart initiated the request.

"I would like to make sure the kids know that we are listening, and we will discuss this," he said. Board member Chris Bausch voiced support for Gearhart's suggestion.

Armer said that COVID-19 has been especially hard for his class, affecting the greater part of the students' high school experience. Being allowed to decorate their caps, he said, "would be a beautiful thing" after the challenges of the pandemic.

"I know ... it's tradition that we have all red, and that's it. But I feel like we can have a new tradition," Armer told the board. "I feel like the caps can show our diversity, because I don't think you can have unity without diversity, and I feel like the diversity is what shows us as individual humans and what makes us stand out."

The board will settle the issue at its next board meeting, scheduled for May 10, about a month ahead of PRHS's graduation on June 10.

"I stand by my decision to continue this important tradition but will respect the decision of the board of trustees as they have been elected to be the voices of the citizenry of Paso Robles," Principal Overton said. "I do want to conclude by saying how proud I am of our Bearcats, and Zelbert in particular, for the way they have gone about advocating for this change. It only serves to prove that they are ready to go out and hopefully change our world for the better." Δ

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