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Timing problem, miscommunication contribute to James Hart graduation cap controversy

When James Hart School eighth graders graduated Tuesday, May 30, Lilliana Ward did not make the walk with her peers because according to school officials, her cap did not meet district graduation dress policy.

According to her mother, LeAnn Osby, the issue was whether Lilliana, who is of Indigenous heritage, could wear a graduation cap adorned with beads by her older sister, Nizhoni Ward. 

Miss Indian Chicago Nizhoni Ward, left, adjusts the tassel on her sister Lilliana's graduation cap. Nizhoni did the beading on the cap herself, but District 161 officials would not grant permission for her to wear it, citing graduation dress rules. (Provided photo by LeAnn Osby)
Miss Indian Chicago Nizhoni Ward, left, adjusts the tassel on
her sister Lilliana’s graduation cap. Nizhoni did the beading
on the cap herself, but District 153 officials would not grant
permission for her to walk in the ceremony while wearing it,
citing graduation dress rules.
(Provided photo by LeAnn Osby)

Lilliana attended the ceremony and wore the special graduation cap, but she did not walk with her classmates to accept her diploma.

Osby said wearing the decorated cap during such an important occasion was part of the traditions of her community.

Part of the problem was timing. 

Osby cited a new state law that will require the State Board of Education to make available to school districts “resource materials developed in consultation with stakeholders regarding a student wearing any articles of clothing or items that have cultural or religious significance to the student if those articles of clothing or items are not obscene or derogatory toward others.”

SB 1446 further states that school districts “may not prohibit the right of a student to wear or accessorize the student’s graduation attire with items associated with the student’s cultural or ethnic identity or any protected characteristic or category identified in the Illinois Human Rights Act, including, but not limited to, Native American items of cultural significance.”

However, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has not yet signed the bill, and when he does, it will go into effect July 1, 2024. 

In a statement from District 153, officials said SB 1446 can’t be applied in this case because it isn’t in effect.

“As stated in communications to eighth-grade graduates and families, there is a dress code to participate in the James Hart graduation ceremony that includes wearing the school-issued cap and gown,” officials said in the statement.

Nizhoni and her mom acknowledged the law doesn’t technically apply yet, but they thought the situation could have been an opportunity for the district to show its support for Native Americans.

“They could have turned it around and been like, ‘We could be one of the first schools to acknowledge this even though it’s not signed yet,'” she said. “That’s why I was upset.”

Nizhoni currently serves as Miss Indian Chicago, which provides her opportunities to represent the Indigenous community in the region. She said she has given presentations on native culture several times locally, including this year at James Hart School.

After district administrators made their decision about the cap, Nizhoni decided to attend the ceremony in her Miss Indian garb.

“I was in my crown and sash, so I stood out amongst the crowd,” she said. “I did that for a reason, to show that not only was I there representing my sister but also the native community as well.”

The other factor contributing to the situation was miscommunication. 

Nizhoni contacted both James Hart Principal Kimberly Johnson and district Superintendent Scott McAlister on Tuesday to request permission for Lilliana to wear the cap.

After both administrators declined to grant permission, Johnson later tried to contact the family to discuss the issue but was unable to reach anyone, according to the statement.

Osby said that she and Nizhoni missed calls from Johnson as they were preparing to attend the ceremony.

“Homewood School District 153 proudly supports students in their religious beliefs and complies with laws that are in effect,” officials said. “It is unfortunate that this situation evolved as it did. We feel strongly that this could have been avoided had proper notification been given to the district for us to respond.”

Osby said she spoke out about the situation online in an effort to educate the district and the community about the importance of regalia.

“We have to fight to wear our regalia,” she said. “People think it’s a costume when this is our culture.”

“This isn’t decoration to us,” Nizhoni said. “This is who we are.”

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