The Case of the Bolo Tie and the Disappearing Diploma

By Jane Weinkrantz

    In a time when schools must be concerned about school shootings, gang violence, drug abuse, standardized testing, failing budgets, overcrowded classes and a host of other serious issues, Charles County Maryland’s Maurice J. McDonough High School’s principal, Garth Bowling has his priorities in order. When graduating senior Thomas Benya wore a bolo tie under his graduation gown, Bowling withheld Benya’s diploma because the Native American student had flouted the school dress code.

    Prior to graduation, a letter was sent to graduating seniors stating that “adherence to the dress code is mandatory.” 

The graduation dress code for boys was dark trousers, white shirts and ties. Not surprisingly, the letter did not specify 

the width of the ties. According to Katie O’Malley-Simpson, a school spokesperson, the bolo “was not considered by 

staff to be a tie…The First Amendment protects religion, and we do everything possible to honor that. There is nothing 

that requires us to follow everyone’s different cultures.”

Maybe not. Then again, it doesn’t sound as though anyone asked her to wear a bolo tie. I wonder: what default culture is it that McDonough’s young men are supposed to be representing in dark trousers, white shirts and ties? They are not wearing kente cloth and they are not wearing kilts. The girls are not wearing saris and they are not wearing sarongs. So one assumes, the graduating seniors were meant to dress like…Americans.  If that’s the case and ---yes, I support a young man’s right to wear a dashiki or a kilt to graduation if the spirit moves him---what is wrong with something that is Native American? Benya clearly knew the school might have a problem with his neckwear---or whatever portion of it was visible beyond his gown---but chose the bolo because, “I did not feel I should change my heritage for an hour and a half to wear an actual tie to show respect when they aren’t showing respect to me.”

    Withholding Benya’s diploma seems like a rather extreme punishment for a harmless sartorial gesture. Does the school feel they have the right to legislate style and if so, what happened to the kids who wore ugly and unflattering clothes to graduation? Or do they find expressions of cultural pride distasteful? Do schools have the authority to tell students to subvert their ethnic identities for a few hours or days or semesters?

    Apparently, many Americans of all backgrounds value the freedom of expression in one’s choice of clothing more than they value homogenous neckwear at graduations. Principal Bowling originally would not hand over Benya’s diploma without a parent conference. However, after he received over 100 e-mails from across the country in support of the bolo tie and Benya and his mother were guests on the “Today” show,  the diploma was rather unceremoniously dropped in the mail. Lest we think the school principal was feeling apologetic, school system spokeswoman Katie O’Malley-Simpson told Washington Post staff writer Ann E. Marimow that Bowling, “felt that he needed to take a step to bring resolution and conclusion to this.”

    In other words, according to Marsha Benya, Thomas’s mother, “They want it to go away. We do too, but not with them telling everyone he broke the rules.”

    For those among us in the Northeast who think a bolo tie is unfashionable, uncool and just too “Hee Haw” for words, keep in mind that former Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse-Campbell wore a bolo tie to conform to the United States Senate’s requirement that male Senators wear a necktie on the Senate floor. Prior to that, as a state Representative, Nighthorse-Campbell had been given permission to wear his bolo tie in the House.  When he was elected to the Senate, his fellow Senators agreed that his tie satisfied the dress code. If a bolo tie is good enough for both the House and the Senate, it ought to be good enough for a high school graduation.

    On June 15, 2005 , one week after graduation, Thomas Benya, attired once again in his  turquoise “squash blossom” bolo tie told Marimow, “I want school officials to know that I deserve better treatment after their poor judgment.” He is still waiting for an apology.


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