Pacific Islander students calling for change due to ban on leis and other cultural displays at high school graduations

UTAH COUNTY – A recent Utah high school graduate nearly missed out on walking with his classmates at commencement because of what he was wearing underneath his gown.

On May 31, West Lake High senior, Fine Malohifo’ou lined up to receive his diploma but was stopped by a staffer.

“They made me unzip my gown and looked in there. They said I couldn't walk if I had that on," Malohifo’ou said.

Malohifo’ou was wearing a Ta’ovala cloth, a tan woven mat made by his family in Tonga to wear on graduation day under his gown.

The cloth was a way for Malohifo’ou to honor his Tonga heritage.

“It’s just a respect thing,” said Simione Malohifo'ou, Fine’s father.

Fine was upset but took off the Ta’ovala. He ended up losing his spot with his friends and marched out last.

“It was extremely disappointing and disrespectful to have him remove it,” said Sara Malohifo'ou, Fine’s mother.

Courtney Tanner, a reporter with the Salt Lake Tribune, our media partner, wrote an article about Fine and other Pacific Islander students experiences with displaying their cultural customs.

“It seems like a growing trend this year. 10 more schools along the Wasatch Front banned lei’s than last year,” said Tanner. “The Huntsman Center, which hosts a lot of high school graduations changed its policy for the first time and banned lei’s at its high school graduation.”

Tanner was able to get some clarification from Westlake Principal Gary Twitchell on the incident with Fine.

“I had been emailing with the Principal, and he said maybe that staffer made a mistake, and he said we probably owe that student an apology,” Tanner said.

The Salt Lake City School District is talking to the Huntsman Center about changing its policy next year. More than half of their students come from minority ethnic backgrounds, including Pacific Islanders.

Meantime, Fine and his family hope schools can learn from this experience.

“Ultimately, it represents respect, and so we want to respect what the school wanted from us,” said Simione Malohifo’ou. “It would be hard to teach him respect and simultaneously disrespecting the school.”

As reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, Granite School District held half of its ceremonies at the Maverik Center in West Valley City, where lei’s are allowed. Some say other districts should consider that venue in the future.