When South Elgin High School student Stephanie Pedroza earned a scholarship from the Elgin Hispanic Network, she received a stole to wear around her neck at graduation.

“It was something I was really excited to wear. I earned it. I was the top recipient. I was super proud,” Pedroza said.

But it was an honor she was denied when a school dean told her remove it prior to the May 27 ceremony, she said. He took the sash away from her, she added.

“We were in line outside of the Now Arena where the graduation was being held. One of the deans came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I need to let you know you are now allowed to wear that. I’m sorry. The district has a strict policy.’”

“I was kind of taken aback because a lot of people were wearing them. They never said there was an issue with it,” Pedroza said.

She informed the dean that it represented an academic achievement, and she wanted it back.

“At the end of the day, I still got to walk on stage. I think it would have been a lot better if I got to wear it,” Pedroza said.

School District U-46 spokeswoman Karla Jimenez said the district gives high school officials discretion to set guidelines for graduation ceremonies, including whether students can wear stoles, sashes or cords not issued by the school or district.

Students at South Elgin typically are allowed to wear them but only if they obtain permission from school administration prior to graduation day, Jimenez said.

“U-46 understands our students increasingly want to express their individuality on graduation day, and our schools and administrators are trying to navigate this desire while also ensuring our graduation ceremonies are respectful and joyous for all,” she said.

Pedroza said doesn’t remember being told she had to receive permission to wear the stole. Other students had similar neckwear reflecting their academic accomplishments and heritage, and some starting hiding them when they realized the dean was taking them away, she said.

“I thought there would be no issue,” she said.

It’s important for students to embrace their heritage, Pedroza said, and in her case, she’s especially proud to be a first generation Mexican American to graduate high school and the first in her family to attend college. She’ll start at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the fall.

During her time in high school, she was and advocate for underrepresented students at South Elgin because the school was predominantly white when she first started.

She helped found a group called the Future of South Elgin, an organization focused on creating a safe and inclusive environment for underrepresented students, and was part of the school’s Racial Inclusion Support and Equity Committee.

She said she believes the school has made a lot of positive changes in that area.

“I was disappointed that we have these organizations at school that try to make kids feel included and try to support equity and those missions, then something like this happens on graduation,” Pedroza said.

What she wants to ensure is the same thing doesn’t happen again next year, she said.

U-46 has a graduation committee made up of district representatives and administrators from each district high school, Jimenez said.

“This topic will be brought up for discussion as the committee meets to plan graduation ceremonies for the Class of 2024,” she said.

Gloria Casas is a freelance reporter for The Courier-News.

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