INDIANAPOLIS — Local school districts soon could lose their ability to require every high school student wear a cap and gown at their graduation ceremony.
State Rep. Mike Aylesworth, R-Hebron, won committee approval Tuesday for House Bill 1055 mandating that school districts allow students already serving in the military to wear their dress uniform instead of the traditional graduation apparel.
Aylesworth said he was motivated to act following last year's decision by Crown Point High School administrators to bar Jacob Dalton Stanley from participating in the graduation ceremony while wearing his Marine uniform.
The district's longstanding policy is that all students wear a cap and gown to show unity, with individual achievements symbolized with stoles and chords. Military members are recognized by name and rank when their names are announced during the ceremony.
Stanley, whose name was listed in the graduation program last spring, was turned away when he went to the graduation ceremony in his Marine dress blues. Nor did school officials read his name among the graduates.
At the time, Crown Point High School Principal Chip Pettit said that Stanley was told before the ceremony what the rule was and why the school adhered to that policy.
"Most school corporations in the state do the right thing and don't need a law for guidance, but there's evidently a couple of school corporations that need help," said Aylesworth, a Vietnam-era veteran.
"We should be encouraging young people who want to put their life on the line for our country to go through graduation and walk up on the stage in their uniform."
The measure was approved by the House Education Committee, 11-2, and next will be debated by the full chamber.
Both dissenting committee votes came from military veterans who said they served, in part, to preserve freedom — including the freedom for individual school districts to choose what their graduates should wear.
"If Crown Point High School administrators want to not show respect to somebody who served in the military, then that is up to Crown Point High School administrators to continue to not show respect," said state Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour.
"I'll call them out, but I don't think this is something the state should involve itself in. We should let the locals maintain control of what they want to do."
State Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis, suggested that instead of a mandate written in law, Aylesworth should have proposed a House resolution expressing the chamber's disapproval of the Crown Point decision.
"I think that's an appropriate vehicle for this topic, rather than legislation aimed at a judgment made by one administrator in one district," Delaney said.
The measure also was opposed by the Indiana School Boards Association because it infringes on local district dress code decisions about whether a graduating class should appear as one class for what likely will be the final time the students are together in one place.
On the other hand, state Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero, said he was "just astounded" that military uniforms at high school graduations are even an issue in Indiana.
"Being a high school principal for 25 years at three different corporations, I didn't know anyone that didn't honor someone who was in military dress uniform and leaving us to go into the services, and was not allowed to wear that," Cook said.