Westlake High School staff were directing the graduating seniors who stood in line backstage: “Unzip your gowns.”
Finehafo’ou Malohifo’ou had slid into the middle of the pack with the other students whose last names started with M, N and O. When the staffers got to his group, he pulled open his dark blue robe. It felt a little weird, he thought, but they were probably just checking to make sure no one was sneaking in an airhorn or some firecrackers.
Under his gown, Malohifo’ou had on dress clothes, a crisp white button-up shirt and black trousers. Over his waist, he wore a tan woven mat — a ta’ovala cloth to honor his Tongan heritage.
“Take it off or you can’t walk,” Malohifo’ou said an administrator insisted, pointing at the wrap.
“It’s part of my culture,” Malohifo’ou responded.
The staffer waved off the comment, Malohifo’ou said, repeated his order and waited as the line of students started to march into the hall. Malohifo’ou was stunned. Already, he had taken off the flower leis from around his neck — a tradition for his Pacific Islander family — so that he wouldn’t break the rules, which said students couldn’t wear anything over their robes. Taking off the ta’ovala, too, which no one would have seen, didn’t make any sense.
But he didn’t want to be left behind.
He slid off the mat, pinned his name to it so he could pick it up after the ceremony and got back in line, zipping his gown. He was now last behind the final Z group and 900 other students.
“It would have meant a lot to wear it,” Malohifo’ou said, reflecting on his May 31 graduation. “I know it means a lot to my family.”
In recent years, schools and districts around the state have wanted to promote a uniform look among graduates that limits distractions or special attention. At least 10 more high schools along the Wasatch Front had a ban on ornamentation, particularly calling out leis, at their ceremonies this year compared with 2017.
For Utah’s large Pacific Islander community, though, the limitations can feel discriminatory, relegating any display of their culture to outside, away from the main stage.
“He told me he felt attacked,” said Malohifo’ou’s dad, Simione. “I was just disappointed. It’s graduation day. He’s a good student.
“This makes me not want to have my younger kids go to public school.”
The Huntsman Center at the University of Utah banned all leis from the floor during high school graduations held there this year. That included four ceremonies for the Salt Lake City School District, which challenged but was not able to change the facility’s new policy.
“I thought that it was culturally insensitive,” said Claustina Mahon-Reynolds, the district’s supervisor of educational equity and advocacy. “The discussion started a little late for this year, but we’re hopeful that for next year they might be a little more inclusive.”
Traditionally, ta’ovala cloths are worn for special occasions — weddings and graduations — as a way to “carry your family with you,” said Ivoni Nash, Malohifo’ou’s aunt. It’s a show of respect and a way to represent your cultural ties to land and country. It’s offensive, she said, that her nephew was asked to remove it.
Relatives helped Malohifo’ou replace his leis and rewrap the ta’ovala around his waist after he got his diploma. Westlake Principal Gary Twitchell said the staff member who told him to take it off made a mistake.
“It seems to me that a ta’ovala would be inconspicuous under a gown, and the student should not have been asked to remove it,” he said. “I believe that we owe that student an apology.”
In Westlake’s graduation guide, the school describes “appropriate attire” for girls as “dresses and nice shoes,” and for boys “slacks, dress shirt, tie and nice shoes.” It bans leis, jeans, shorts, T-shirts, flip-flops, sunglasses and signs.
Caps cannot be decorated. Honors cords are allowed “by invitation only.” A school-issued medal or pin is OK. All other adornments are restricted to before and after the ceremony.
Twitchell said the policy, which started in 2009 and is not districtwide, instructs school staffers to restrict what students wear under their gowns only if it distracts from “the formal nature of the graduation,” such as “big red clown shoes that show or big necklaces that could be pulled out and displayed.” It’s open to a bit of interpretation.
Simione Malohifo’ou said he saw other Westlake students wearing hijabs and crucifixes. He doesn’t see why ta’ovala cloths or leis should be treated differently.
Some schools and venues have argued that fresh flower leis, in particular, make a mess or that students wear too many around their neck or that fights break out over the money and candy versions of the necklaces.
Aaron White, director of the Huntsman Center, said the facility hosts the high school graduations as “more of a community service” than as a means of making money. It doesn’t usually turn a profit from the districts because of overhead and cleaning costs, he said.
The center also just spent $40,000 on new carpet to roll out over the basketball court — and worried about staining it.
“The leis are always a problem,” White said. “The students are excited. They’re hugging. Flowers and leaves fall off on the floor.”
The four graduation ceremonies for Salt Lake City district schools were all on the same day and staged with 40 minutes between the end of one and the start of the next. It would cost an additional $500, White added, to send in a rush crew between the ceremonies to pick up petals. The center decided against that.
Leis, however, were allowed at the University of Utah’s commencements.
“We really did not have any issue with the way that we handled it,” he said.
But if the center is not willing to change its policies for high school graduations, the Salt Lake City school district — which has one of the largest minority percentages of any student body in the state — might consider moving to a different venue, Mahon-Reynolds said.
Leis are symbolic of love and gratitude and pride. Family members often make them by hand with flowers grown on the islands where they have ties.
Pacific Islander students, when allowed, typically wear one or two fresh leis during their graduation to honor their heritage. Relatives then pile more on after the ceremony .
Malohifo’ou had 10 or 12 leis around his neck outside Westlake’s ceremony hall, barely able to see above them. He had a couple of dozen more made of money and candy draped over each arm, with both sagging under the weight.
After his graduation at the Huntsman Center from East High School, Taavili PO Hafoka was so buried in leis that his hands barely poked out under the mass of flowers, dollar bills, cookies and pouches of Skittles and Cheetos.
“His leis went over his head, on his arms, my daughter’s arms, my arms and a basket full of leis,” joked his mom, M. Vida Hafoka. “Leis are a token of love and appreciation for all that they’ve done in high school.”
She would have liked for her son to be able to wear a couple of leis inside, though, particularly those sent from family members living in the South Pacific.
Angie Lotulelei wanted the same for her daughter, Sondra, who is Tongan and graduated from West High School this month, also at the Huntsman Center.
“They don’t want us to display our cultural customs or traditions,” Lotulelei said. “It takes away what sets them apart, what makes them special. We do that to celebrate their difference.”
Lotulelei graduated from Highland High School, which is in the same district as West High, in 1994. She wore leis at her ceremony and fears the tradition is being taken away from the next generation. “Will they just ban leis altogether? Is this just beginning?”
Granite School District — which has a 4 percent Pacific Islander student body in its sprawling reach over Salt Lake County from Magna to Holladay — held about half of its graduations at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City and half at the Maverik Center in West Valley City. The latter allows leis. Maybe all the nearby districts, Hafoka suggested, should contract there.
In 2004, Jamelle Folafolaga Avei, who is Samoan, was the first student body president of color elected at Woods Cross High School in majority-white Davis County. He tried to arrange a “diversity week” to celebrate different cultures. He started discussions about bias and sensitivity.
By the end of his term in 2005, his administration had announced they would ban leis at graduation.
“I couldn’t stand for that,” Avei said. “I was a Pacific Islander who was speaking at the ceremony and would be representing my class.”
He sat down with the principal and senior class advisor, threatening to take it up with the school district if they didn’t rethink the policy. They did. Avei wore leis to his commencement and focused his speech on the importance of the flower necklaces. “For me, it signifies my culture and where I came from.”
This year — 13 years after Avei graduated — the school held its ceremony at the Huntsman Center where leis were not allowed. It felt like a major step back to Avei.
Several people told The Salt Lake Tribune that not being able to wear cultural items has been the lasting memory of their graduation day.
One woman who graduated a decade ago lamented having her lei taken away. Another said she had to fight to keep on a headpiece pinned in her hair. Hafoka said her family wasn’t allowed to play drums outside after her son’s ceremony. Avei said he was told not to sing his speech. Malohifo’ou can’t stop thinking about his ta’ovala.
To him, it’s more than just a piece of clothing. It’s part of his identity.