Can Seniors Joining Service Wear Military Insignia To High School Graduation? School Officials Say No

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A battle over whether students about to join the military can wear insignia on their gowns during graduation at a Connecticut high school next week is raging on social media, but school officials are holding firm.

Several students in Ledyard, Connecticut want to wear shoulder cords representing their branch of the service. According to some parents, the students got the cords from their military recruiters with the advice that they could wear them over their gowns during their graduation.

But the high school principal said no, and the superintendent is backing her up.

The father of one of the students posted an account on his Facebook page, which has drawn outrage. Daniel Williamson said his son Gavin is about to join the U.S. Navy, and that he and other students about to enter military service ought to be allowed to show their pride in serving their country.

“Every single one of these recruits have signed a contract basically stating, that their lives are secondary while putting every one of our lives, above their own. They all willing commit themselves to every man, woman and child of the nation; knowing that they may not come back home the same way they left, or may not come back home at all. That’s a scary thing, yet admirable enough and worthy of a simple silent and humble means of recognition,” Williamson wrote.

“All of these graduates are very humble. They don’t want any vocal or spoken recognition from the speakers, at the graduation,” he wrote. “They just want to wear their cords representing their branch of service, symbolic of the voluntary commitment they all signed on for; to benefit The People.”

But school officials say longstanding tradition at the school allows shoulder cords to be worn only by the top 10 academic achievers and by class officers.

“We’ve never had students request and expect to be singled out for joining the service,” superintendent Jason Hartling said in an interview with New Boston Post.

School officials try to limit the amount of singling out at graduation because the ceremony is about the entire class.

“And our high school has actually been consistent about not playing the everybody-gets-a-trophy game.” Hartling said.

Hartling said he has talked to a Navy official in Boston and been assured that the cords are not an official gesture by the Navy and that new recruits are instructed that they are supposed to follow the rules of their school. He sees it as a campaign started by one father that has picked up steam in part through misunderstanding.

“And that’s what we’re responding to, is a social media firestorm from a bunch of people who don’t want to follow the orders of their recruiter and their school. Which is kind of funny, because in two weeks they’ll be told how to fold their underwear,” Hartling said.

A U.S. Navy spokesman could not be reached for comment.

The number of seniors affected isn’t clear. Williamson says on his Facebook page it’s 18. The superintendent says military recruiters have only confirmed about seven or eight seniors joining the military, with others thought to be considering it without actually having enlisted.

Exaggerations of the conflict abound, the superintendent said. For instance, he has seen accounts claiming that the seniors aren’t being allowed to wear their military uniforms during graduation. But the students aren’t entitled to wear a uniform because none of them has actually joined the military yet.

Some are portraying the conflict as anti-military school administrators versus patriotic students proud to show that they’re about to serve their country. But Hartling said that’s wrong.

Hartling, 41, in his first year as superintendent in Ledyard, is a 1997 graduate of Norwich University, a military school in Vermont. He served eight years in the military police of the National Guard.

The high school principal, Amanda Fagan, is a Navy brat who graduated from Ledyard High School while her father was serving at the naval base in nearby New London, Hartling said, adding that Fagan encourages military recruiters and works hard to make sure that students entering the service are honored by the school.

The high school has an award ceremony a few weeks before graduation called Blue and White Day, after the school colors, and that’s when individual achievements are acknowledged, Hartling said.

Fagan could not be reached for comment.

Some parents have said on social media that the principal at one point threatened students with being removed from graduation by Ledyard police if they defied school administrators and wear their military cords during graduation Friday, June 23. But Hartling subsequently announced that won’t happen.

Instead, Hartling said, he and Fagan are trying to work out a compromise that will allow the students to be further honored without wearing cords on their gown.