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RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: Commencement shouldn’t be about stifling expression

These days, too many Americans get worked up over the darnedest things.

Liberals are boycotting Twitter, Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby because they see those companies as intolerant. Conservatives are avoiding Target and Disney and Bud Light because they insist those brands are “woke.”

When did people in this country become so skittish about celebrating our differences? Is homogeneity so great that it’s worth fighting a culture war to preserve it?

Diversity is under attack again. This time, it’s happening at the grass roots, in local school districts. While schools have become battlegrounds amid attacks on curriculum and books, this latest skirmish is occurring in a setting that seems fairly innocuous: high school graduation ceremonies.

Commencement should be about hope, accomplishment and aspirations. It shouldn’t be marred by fear, intolerance and small-mindedness.

In Colorado, Naomi Peña Villasano, a Mexican American graduating senior in Garfield County, was told by administrators that at commencement she could not wear a decorative sash over her gown with images of both the Mexican and American flags, because it did not promote “unity.” A federal judge backed the school district, refusing to grant an injunction. Villasano defied administrators and wore the sash anyway.

In Oklahoma, Lena’ Black, a recent graduate of Broken Arrow Public Schools and a member of the Otoe-Missouria tribe, is suing her former school district. She claims school officials prevented her from wearing a sacred eagle plume on her graduation cap during last year’s ceremony, because it allegedly deviated from the standard dress code.

In Mississippi, a 17-year-old transgender student, identified in court documents by her initials, “L.B.,” at a Gulfport high school skipped her graduation ceremony rather than wear boys’ clothes after administrators said she couldn’t don a dress and heels under her commencement robe. A federal judge denied the student’s motion to override the administrators’ decision.

Can you believe these things are happening? Folks, we have clearly lost our way. Students are literally having to make a federal case out of asserting their right to express their individuality over the objections of school administrators.

These cultural displays by graduates are harmless. And for those who might claim that they’re disruptive, I have to ask the obvious: Exactly what is being disrupted other than the status quo, which one could argue is woefully behind the times anyway?

Aren’t there much bigger things to worry about in the public school system? Administrators should spend more time boosting test performance and preparing young people for the curveballs that life will throw at them. They should not be trying to suppress free expression and advance an agenda based on obedience and conformity.

It could be that principals, school board members and district administrators see high school graduation as their last opportunity to exert control over young people who are about to be beyond their grasp. That can lead to these sorts of petty abuses of power.

I’ve been there. Memory takes me back to the spring of 1985 and my own high school graduation in central California. I shared the title of class valedictorian along with seven other classmates. All of us had 4.0 GPAs.

One of those classmates was of German ancestry, and his grandparents had come all the way from Germany to see him graduate. Out of respect for them, my friend wanted to say a few words in German in his speech. It was a thoughtful gesture, not to mention a harmless one. Still, he had to get permission from the principal, who — after some hesitation — granted the request.

That same year, at the junior high school down the road, the valedictorian was Mexican American. She wanted to honor her parents, who spoke only Spanish, by saying a few words of her speech in their language.

The principal objected and told her she had to give the speech 100 percent in English. Under pressure, he caved. In the end, the student gave the speech she wanted to give.

If you want to leave the world better than you found it, you have to know which battles to fight. Or you could wind up pitting groups against one another. And we already have enough of that.

This is an important life lesson. How unfortunate that some educators seem to have been absent the day it was taught.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is crimscribe@icloud.com. His podcast, “Ruben in the Center,” is available through every podcast app.

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