In the wake of Friday’s graduation ceremony, Woodland High School and principal John Shoup became the center of a social media backlash Saturday after a parent said her son was not allowed to wear a U.S. Navy decoration during commencement.
Graduating senior Johnathon Fletcher said Monday he was offended after Shoup denied his request to wear a Navy stole at graduation, and for comments about military service that Shoup says were taken out of context.
School officials said they’ve been inundated with vitriolic and profane emails and calls since the controversy began, including death threats.
And the event has sparked a debate about the purpose of graduation ceremonies: Should commencement honor students for their post-graduation plans, or only recognize the accomplishments a student made while in school?
Shoup said Monday that Woodland High School intentionally keeps graduation attire the same so that students are recognized for their work at school, not for their plans afterwards.
At Woodland’s graduation on Friday, students were allowed to wear cords that marked a high grade point average and membership in the National Honor Society or Woodland Academic Scholars. Any other kinds of decorations, including stoles, were prohibited.
Fletcher, 18, said Monday that he and a fellow student approached Shoup to ask him why they couldn’t wear their Navy stoles when other students can wear cords.
Fletcher and Shoup remember the conversation slightly differently. Fletcher said he was told “anybody can join the military” and that it takes more dedication to do well in school. Shoup said he was explaining that the two accomplishments are “apples and oranges” and couldn’t be compared.
Regardless, Fletcher said he was “livid.”
“Not everybody can join the military,” Fletcher said. “It does take hard work. It’s more dedication than it takes to jump through the hoops in high school.”
Shoup said his comments were taken out of context, and that he didn’t mean to say one was better than the other.
Rather, Shoup said, the goal of graduation is to celebrate student’s accomplishments while in school, and it’s been that way for at least the 21 years he’s been principal. This year’s graduates, including the roughly 15 to 20 who plan to join the military, were honored for their post-graduation plans at a separate “Senior Night” event last Tuesday and at an assembly honoring seniors, Shoup said.
“That message has been consistent,” Shoup said. “I’ve put it in letters, student hand books. I’ve met with seniors numerous times before graduation. This message has been long out there.”
Fletcher and the other Navy-enlistee received special recognition at Senior Night, Shoup said, but he said that agreeing to their “persistent” requests to wear their stoles would have singled them out against the other graduates. He said he understands their frustration but had to turn down their request.
“I’m not upset with these boys at all,” Shoup said. “In the end, both boys did as I asked. I thanked them, prior to them walking. … I knew they were disappointed.”
And Shoup said he spent most of a “pretty awful” afternoon Sunday responding to emails and claims that he’s anti-military, and some death threats. Many of those comments appear to have been inspired by an article about the controversy written by a non-local political blogger, Shoup said.
Superintendent Michael Green said the high school has in the past received “all sorts” of requests from students to modify the graduation dress code, but has held firm on its rules.
“We have students that graduate and go to Stanford, do many wonderful things, including service to our country,” Green said. “Our tradition is to celebrate what students have accomplished in high school, not what their next step is.”
Regardless, Fletcher said he wants Shoup to apologize for his comments and allow students to wear stoles in the future. Shoup said he doesn’t want to get into a public debate over the matter in the media.
Fletcher enlisted in the Navy on Nov. 30 — his 18th birthday. He initially had “no real plans” for post-high school life but placed highly on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test. He plans to enlist in an engineering program and work on submarine reactors after a year or two of study.
“I figured this would be a good way to get my life up and going, and a really honorable path to go to support our country,” he said.
He contends that military service was a part of his high school experience, just like a shop class can be instrumental for a student going to trade school. After enlisting, Fletcher said he had monthly meetings to prepare for boot camp, weekly calls with a mentor and until a few months ago was attending optional twice-weekly physical training sessions.
“I’m not trying to discredit those kid’s cords,” Fletcher said. “I think that’s a very big accomplishment, but I think that all people should be able to honor the things they’ve done and their accomplishments. … I would like to see that the school, in the future, allows students to wear their stoles, honoring what they’ve done.”