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Military sash story resonates far beyond Orchard Park graduation

In 2016, just as Zachary Field was about to graduate from Orchard Park High School and get ready to join the Army, he called his father, David, with some troubling news: The school was not going to let him wear his military sash over his gown.

David Field was not happy and shared his displeasure with school officials.

"I told them two years ago unless they do something about this it was going to blow up on them," Field said.

He was right.

Dillon Donovan, a member of the school's class of 2018, left Orchard Park's graduation ceremony Saturday after school staff would not let him wear his yellow U.S. Marine Corps sash over his maroon gown. He is leaving for boot camp next month.

His story is now getting widespread attention and has Orchard Park officials reconsidering how to handle such requests in the future and when to highlight students who are choosing a career in the military after high school.

A check with other area districts shows a variety of policies on graduation attire. In Buffalo, individual high schools give varying amounts of latitude on cap design and customization, and students are given tips about what is and is not appropriate, according to spokeswoman Elena Cala. There is no districtwide standard.

At Sweet Home High School in Amherst, there are ropes for honors programs and special tassels for some programs. Graduates are allowed to decorate their caps, said Donald Feldmann, supervisor of community relations for the district. Those going into the military are recognized individually prior to the distribution of diplomas, he said. Some students choose to wear their uniform instead of a cap and gown to graduation, he said.

At Williamsville Central's three high schools, students are expected to get approval in advance from school administration if they want to wear a cord or sash from an official organization, including the military, at graduation, according to spokeswoman Rita Wolff.

Orchard Park has focused on the graduating class as a "cohesive group," with cords, sashes and decorated caps not part of the ceremony, according to Orchard Park Superintendent Matthew McGarrity.

Field sent an email to the principal and superintendent after the 2016 graduation, stating he was disappointed that the graduates entering the armed forces were not recognized and due to the lack of acknowledgement, their sashes should have been allowed.

McGarrity said after Field brought the issue to the district's attention two years ago, changes were made; students entering the military are recognized by name at the senior banquet, and the principal recognizes those students as a group during graduation ceremonies.

But McGarrity said when Donovan showed up to graduation with the sash, it was too late to provide the same opportunity to other seniors who may have wanted to wear a sash.

"At the end of the day, we're definitely going to be talking about this more and in great length to try to figure out how to recognize students, and at the same time, look at our protocol," McGarrity said.

Orchard Park looks for guidance from military members on graduation protocol

He said the review would include examining the program, where student scholarships are mentioned, but there is no list of students entering the military. Cords, sashes and decorated caps have not been part of Orchard Park's graduations for at least 20 years, he said.

Thirteen of Orchard Park's 379 graduates are entering the armed forces this year.

Field, whose youngest son also graduated Saturday, said his son did not wear the sash in 2016. He is in the Army's 10th Mountain Division, stationed in Fort Polk, La. He said he spoke to Donovan's mother and grandmother at the graduation venue Saturday, and they were "visibly upset."

As for how he felt about another student picking up the cause where his son left off, he said: "Good for Dillon for taking a stand."

Orchard Park student leaves graduation rather than remove military sash

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