GREENVILLE — Emotions ran high Monday evening as nearly 20 people made their voices heard at the Greenville Public Schools Board of Education meeting.
Public comment went on for nearly a full hour as one person after another stood to address the board regarding red, white and blue cords the Blue Star Mothers of Michigan gave graduating students who had enlisted in the military.
Kathy Barnes, president of the Michigan Blue Star Mothers, read a prepared statement expressing her support of the cords and her dismay that graduates were not allowed to wear them during commencement June 5.
Representatives from VFW Post 5065 in Sheridan — World War II veteran Eric Halvorsen, U.S. Navy veteran Donald Rule and Post Commander Ron Kessler — then took the floor.
“A graduating senior who has decided to sign on the dotted line may not be a veteran yet, but they have committed to become something greater than themselves,” Rule said. “They have taken a huge step to be a future leader in our great nation and not just a structured curriculum. We … are disappointed that Greenville Public Schools refuses to allow our future leaders to wear the cords they deserve.”
Rule acknowledged the school made an effort to recognize students who are enlisted in the military during an honors week assembly, but he believed letting the students wear the cords would not have detracted from the commencement ceremony.
“These kids committed their lives to a minimum of four years of service,” Kessler said. “They may even give up their lives at some point, but they’re not concerned with that. That is an achievement in my book.”
Amy Eager, the mother of one of the students given a military cord, addressed not only cords given to students entering the military but cords given to students who donated a certain amount of blood, stating that these cords are just as important as those given to signify academic achievement. She said the cords would not have taken away from the ceremony or added any time either.
“I don’t need you to say they’re joining the military (during commencement),” she said. “The cords say it themselves. All we are asking is that they have the same privilege every other student who received their cords during honors week had.”
Eager claimed graduating students were searched by administration before they were allowed to walk into the gym during commencement; however, Superintendent Linda Van Houten said she was “not aware of that happening.”
“I’m only asking for a rule change in dress code for cords presented during honors week to allow for (them to be worn) during swing out and graduation,” Eager said. “If a line must be drawn, I think a patriotic line is a safe spot to draw that line.”
Chad Ashbaugh noted multiple issues seem to be involved, including dress code and nonacademic achievement. He also noted that military recruiters are brought in during school hours, which means it’s school-related.
Shane Ashbaugh noted rules about graduation cords don’t even exist in the school handbook.
“How can we check on a rule if it doesn’t exist (in the handbook)? Why are you going to give out a handbook if you’re going to make it up as you go along?” he said. “We’re fighting over a rule that doesn’t exist.”
Board of Education President Janet Ralph said it was never the intention of the school board or the administration to not honor students who enlisted in the military.
“It’s been pointed out that this came up at the very last minute and we really didn’t have time to process it,” she said. “We will discuss it as a district. We will get information to you in regards to any decision we may make.”
Chad Ashbaugh wanted to know when the board is going to discuss the subject so concerned parents can plan on attending.
“We want this transparent so we know who (has what thoughts on this),” he said. “If the community doesn’t agree with these people, we can get them out of the positions. You are a community voted on by us.”
Chad went on to ask school board members to state when they will be up for re-election. Ralph pointed out that this information is available in brochures present at the meeting.
Ralph closed the public comment by saying that she wants every person who came to discuss the issue to leave the meeting “believing that we have never had any intention to dishonor anyone.”
“The long tradition has been to single out no student or group of students except class speakers and those with high academic records to wear stoles or cords they receive during honors week,” she said. “The ceremony is very dignified to show respect and to allow every student to be recognized for completing the requirements to graduate.”
Honors week, Ralph said, is an attempt to recognize all students, not just seniors, for their achievements during their high school careers. The group of students joining the military were recognized with a five-minute standing ovation during that ceremony.
“The decision not to allow them to wear red, white and blue cords was about tradition and was in no way to disrespect the students joining the military,” Ralph reiterated.