When the Facebook post first began circulating on social media, it resulted in immediate shock — hundreds of shares, just as many comments.
A Black student was pulled from his graduation procession on July 28 and told to remove his face mask, displaying the words Black Lives Matter, before being allowed to march in the ceremony with the rest of his classmates from York Catholic High School. And his father is now speaking out against the injustice.
It seemed like such a step back given the strides the community has made in recent months, John Holmes said as he reflected on the events that unfolded last week. His son, Dean, was the student forced to remove that mask.
“Are you still not hearing us,” Holmes said during a phone conversation Sunday night. He sounded frustrated and tired.
In a letter he wrote to the Diocese of Harrisburg, and later shared on social media, Holmes describes the incident and how his son was “discriminated against in plain sight for his race and prior civil rights activism.”
There was viral outrage online, and by Monday morning more than 740 people had shared the post and over 760 left comments.
People shared in the outrage, but not everyone was “shocked” or “surprised” by the sentiment.
When Dean recounted what happened, he said he was wearing the Black Lives Matter mask during the practice before the official ceremony began. At that time, teachers saw him wearing it, but did not say anything to him or ask him to remove it.
It wasn’t until the procession began that teachers at the doors reacted to it, he said. Principal Katie Seufert allegedly told Dean to take his mask off since the students were given face shields to wear instead, but the student refrained and said he wished to still wear his mask.
“And then they pulled me out of line and they said, ‘Dean, we can get you another mask’ — the issue was definitely the Black Lives Matter on the mask,” he said.
They tried to give him another mask, but Dean didn’t want it. And as he saw his classmates heading into the church, he feared missing the graduation ceremony. So he removed his mask from his face and handed it over to the principal.
“I sat through the rest of the ceremony very upset,” Dean said. “It felt like another time York Catholic was trying to put me down, kind of make me feel smaller. Because in the past, there have been issues, too — of them trying to make me smaller, make me feel less like an individual. But this was graduation.”
He is heading off to New York University in the fall. And though he is hopeful he will find a welcoming community there, the sting of last week’s events will stay with him, he said.
“You only get one high school graduation,” Dean said. “I wish that mine didn’t play out like this.”
In the letter Holmes wrote, he said not only was his son’s health and safety jeopardized when he was forced to remove his protective mask, but his freedom of expression was censored when he was compelled to remove it or face the possibility of not graduating.
“The action taken against my son demonstrates that York Catholic High School has miles to go before they can put the ugliness of unconscious bias and racism to sleep,” Holmes wrote.
How did the school respond?
York Catholic responded to the incident in a letter signed by Arthur Full, school board chairman. The letter was sent out to parents and students in the school community.
An excerpt of the letter can be found here:
Each graduate was given a face shield to be worn in lieu of a face mask. Graduates gathered outside the church prior to processing inside. They were checked in, asked several questions regarding exposure to COVID-19, and temperature checked. Two other graduates chose to wear a solid face mask with no writing in addition to the actual shield and sought permission in advance to do so.
The graduate mentioned in the statement by the parent did not seek permission to wear a face mask in addition to the face shield, nor was the face mask worn at all during the 45 minutes prior to the processional portion of the ceremony. It was not until the last minute, right before entering the church, that the face mask with writing was put on. York Catholic administration directed the face mask to be removed privately, away from the other graduates and guests.
The decorum of York Catholic’s Baccalaureate and Graduation ceremonies follow the tradition that no messages are permitted on caps or gowns. Any graduate wearing a cap, gown, or mask with any message would have been asked to remove it.
Chad Dion Lassiter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, said he understands that York Catholic is a private institution. The school is free to set dress codes as it pleases, and the student should have sought previous permission to wear the mask if that was protocol.
However, Lassiter questioned what harm would have occurred had Dean been allowed to express this historical moment with a mask that said Black Lives Matter?
The answer? “No harm.”
“Given the moment that we find ourselves in,” Lassiter said, “it’s a very transformative moment, it’s a moment in which some of the traditional norms may have to go by the wayside temporarily or need to be revamped altogether.”
In a time where we are seeing humanity come together, Lassiter said, why couldn’t York Catholic, for this one occasion, make an exception?
However, Holmes said that this wasn’t an isolated incident and it speaks to a bigger issue at the school.
“If you see the comments on the post, this is not a this-year problem,” Holmes said. “So if we don’t speak up, shame on us. Because it’s been going on for so long, and so many people have gotten hurt.”
Prior to graduation, Dean wrote an essay for his English class, in which he discussed his experiences attending primarily white schools and the hardships that followed. The full essay can be found below.
“Roses are red; violets are blue,” the essay starts off. “More than likely I do not look like you. Like a clown in a courthouse or a fish in the desert, I have been on the outside for a large portion of my life. Since first grade, I’ve been a student at white majority private schools. Without a doubt, I am grateful that my parents pushed for me to have the best education possible; however, on the other hand, attending these schools, there is definitely a learning curve.”
Dean’s essay received a grade of 106% — his teacher even cried when she read it, he said. But when he wanted to enter the essay into a speech contest, he said he was told it was too controversial to read in front of the younger students.
“Another way they put him down,” Holmes said. “And things need to change. You have to lead from the front. You can’t lead from the middle or the back. So that’s what we’re doing. We’re leading from the front.
DEAN’S ESSAY CAN BE FOUND BELOW THE GALLERY.
Dean’s full essay
Roses are Red
FIVE disgusted stares coming from all directions
Roses are red; violets are blue. More than likely I do not look like you. Like a clown in a courthouse or a fish in the desert, I have been on the outside for a large portion of my life. Since first grade, I’ve been a student at white majority private schools. Without a doubt, I am grateful that my parents pushed for me to have the best education possible; however, on the other hand, attending these schools, there is definitely a learning curve.
FOUR elementary students
In my second grade class, we did a class project where all of the students studied a different African country. While studying the country of Niger, one of my classmates called me the “n” word. Unsure of what to do given the current circumstances, I did nothing. At that moment I resembled the g in lasagna; I was silent. When I got home from school that day my dad asked his daily “how was school today, Dean?” I responded with “it was good, but one of the students called me the “n” word.” He was in shock. One typically does not send his kid to school and expect this to occur. What followed was a THREE-way phone call between my mom, dad and my teacher, a meeting and a quasi-sincere apology. With my seven-year-old brain, I could not comprehend to the fullest extent what really happened, but as time passed and similar experiences transpired, I slowly put the pieces of the puzzle together. As I got older I developed a tattoo in the back of my mind that says “will it always be like this?”
Roses are red; violets are blue. I do not really know what to do. The feeling of my mom telling me to proceed with caution every time I leave the house hoping that the fruit of her womb does not become a strange fruit hanging from a tree. The worries of being told I am too black to hang with the white kids and too white to hang with the black kids. The shackles and restraints that are only there in spirit which keep me from ending up as just another statistic. This is the baggage I carry with me on a daily basis.
TWO kids getting charged for the same crime; the one with more melanin in his skin has a longer sentence
Today in 2019, hopefully, people have enough awareness not to use the “n” word, but racism has changed forms. Nuanced strikes and microaggressions seem to have taken over. To the blind eye, racism and prejudice may seem to have disappeared, but to the victim, is it like a stapler dropping in a quiet room.
Roses may be red, and violets may be blue, but why does it matter? Why is it when talking about roses and violets the first thing to be said about them is their color? Why can’t they be recognized solely for what they are? They are just flowers.
ONE human race
Also of interest: