Controversy flares over McHenry West High School Marine graduate's attire

School District 156 officials say they did not prevent Marine from participating in ceremony

From the Twitter profile of @Lexii_vargas
From the Twitter profile of @Lexii_vargas

McHENRY – The McHenry West graduate who could not participate in Thursday's graduation after choosing to wear her U.S. Marine Corps dress blues said she does not want the attention or controversy that has ensued since the ceremony.

In a statement released by the Corps, Pvt. Megan Howerton said she had been informed of the district's policy, which would not allow her to wear her dress blues unless she wore a gown over it.

"I do not want the controversy that is saturating social media, and I do not want to draw attention away from the class of 2016," Howerton stated. "That being said, it was my choice not to participate in the graduation."

She added she did not want to make any additional statements and instead wanted to put the incident behind her to start her career in the Corps.

McHenry Community High School District 156 posted a statement on its website Friday after several social media posts in community groups expressed outrage on behalf Howerton, some using the hashtag #letmeganwalk.

Posters said Howerton graduated early and joined the Marines, then came back for the school's ceremony.

Principal Marsha Potthoff said dress code expectations were communicated in advance through an April letter to parents and students, a senior meeting that occurred on May 6, and again on the day of graduation rehearsal.

Potthoff said the district was not made aware until 6:15 p.m. the night of graduation, which began at 7 p.m., that the student intended to not adhere to the district's policy.

"The purpose of graduation is to recognize all students as a class," Potthoff said. "I think we try to honor the group as a collective whole. That's our philosophy of graduation."

Director of Curriculum Carl Vallianatos said he wished there had been a dialogue with the student prior to Thursday night.

"Because 6:30 p.m. the night of is just not the time to have the issue," Vallianatos said. "It could've been talked about before it came to be an issue that took away from the celebration of the entire group."

In its statement, the district said that in the past, active-duty military students had been allowed to wear their graduation gowns on top of their military uniforms with their military hats.

According to Marine regulations, however, "No part of a prescribed uniform, except those items not exclusively military in character, will be worn with civilian clothing."

Sgt. Trevon Peracca, the marketing and public affairs representative for Marine Corps Recruiting Station in Chicago, in a statement said the Corps is proud to have Howerton amongst its ranks and appreciative that she feels proud to wear the uniform. He also said the Corps recognized that there are policies in place that outline graduation dress codes.

"As high school graduations recognize the academic accomplishments of the class and the class's final chapter at that institution, the decision to allow individuals to wear uniforms during graduations is at the discretion of the school," Peracca said.

New Hampshire earlier this month enacted a law forbidding high schools from requiring students in the Armed Forces from covering up their dress uniforms with a gown. The law was named in honor of a Marine who was forbidden from wearing his dress uniform at his graduation, and was killed in action in Afghanistan a year later. California passed a similar law several years ago.

Cmdr. Ronnie Reber of the McHenry Veterans of Foreign Wars issued a statement, which District 156 posted on its website. While Reber did not specifically mention the situation at issue, he did list past instances of support from McHenry high schools.

"I personally, along with my fellow Veterans, are proud to call McHenry home and wholeheartedly support the McHenry high schools in their functions," Reber wrote.

Also posted was a letter from Colin Brennan, who is identified as an active-duty Marine and 2014 McHenry West graduate. In his letter, Brennan states because the ceremony was a District 156 event and not one of the military, the regulated "uniform," to him, was the cap and gown.

"It is unfair to the district to be looked at so negatively by the entire community for following a rule," he said.

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