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News / Northwest

Seattle schools won’t reschedule graduations that fall on Muslim holiday

By Denisa R. Superville, The Seattle Times
Published: May 24, 2024, 7:59am

SEATTLE — Muslim students at three Seattle high schools have a difficult choice to make on June 17: Celebrate Eid al-Adha, one of the most important Muslim holidays, with their families or attend their graduations, an important rite of passage.

Some Muslim students at Cleveland High School alerted their principal to the dilemma last October when they noticed that their 2024 graduation was scheduled on Eid al-Adha, the Muslim holiday marking the Prophet Ibrahim’s submission to Allah’s (God’s) command to sacrifice his son, Ishmael.

But the students said the outreach to their administration and follow-up efforts with Seattle Public Schools officials went nowhere. Last month, a coalition of students from Garfield, Cleveland and Franklin high schools spoke during a School Board meeting, asking the district publicly to change the graduation date. The change, they said, would ensure that Muslim students won’t have to choose between their faith and a significant milestone.

Although the date for Eid al-Adha changes from year to year based on a lunar calendar, it was clear last fall when the holiday would be celebrated in 2024. The state superintendent’s office lists common public and religious holidays and guidance for districts on its website. CAIR-WA, a Muslim civil rights organization, also annually alerts districts statewide to the dates of the two major holidays — Eid al-Fitr, which is celebrated at the end of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha — before the school year starts.

Some said that scheduling the ceremonies on a Muslim holiday and the lack of engagement from the district made Muslim students, families and staff feel excluded and ran counter to the district’s pronouncements on equity and its aim to center students “furthest from educational justice.” One former SPS student, who supported the request and spoke at the meeting, said the district would never schedule graduation on a patriotic or Christian holiday.

In addition to Cleveland, Garfield’s and The Center School’s graduations are also set for June 17.

The district said it planned to meet with the students and religious leaders in the community, who had written to the district backing the students’ request.

But in a statement this month, the students said they were told that it was unlikely that the graduation ceremonies would be rescheduled because it was too late to do so.

“We, as Muslim students, are standing up for and advocating for our rights,” the students said. “Despite our persistence, the school and district administration have been stalling, passing us off to other school or district officials, and not taking our concerns seriously.”

The students said they got support from their peers and teachers and collected 284 signatures on a petition to reschedule the graduation ceremonies. Yet the district has not given a “compelling reason why graduation was scheduled on a date with a known conflict and why the school and district refuse to change it.” The request has also gained the support of a state organization for Muslim civil rights.

“Eid al-Adha is the most significant holiday of the year in Islam, and we deserve to be able to practice our faith with our families and celebrate our high school graduation with our peers,” they wrote.

The holiday is also celebrated at the end of the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, which millions of Muslims undertake annually. Families generally attend morning prayers at the mosque during Eid al-Adha and spend time with family and friends in the afternoon.

The district confirmed in a statement that the “graduation schedule will proceed as originally planned.”

When asked earlier this month why commencement ceremonies were scheduled on Eid al-Adha and whether the district knew the dates would clash, Beverly Redmond, the district’s chief of staff and spokesperson, said: “I am not going to say that we weren’t aware of the calendar, but just exactly when it would fall. There is that acknowledgment that there could be some variation in that and that’s where that’s centered.”

The district said it would continue to work with faith leaders “about possible recommendations for next year’s commencement planning.”

In recent years, some school districts, particularly those on the East Coast, have expanded the number of religious holidays in the school calendar to include Muslim and Hindu holidays. Last year, for example, New York added Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, as an official school holiday. New York City Public Schools also observe Eid al-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha as school holidays. Several New Jersey districts, including Paterson, Prospect Park and North Brunswick Township, are closed on one or both of the major Muslim holidays.

On its website, Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction encourages districts not to schedule “significant school events” on common religious and public holidays in order to ensure that all students feel like “they are a meaningful part of their school communities and that their religious traditions matter.” It notes that some dates are not fixed and are based on moon sightings. It lists the date of Eid al-Adha in the 2023-24 academic year as June 16-17.

In an April 24 letter, CAIR-WA wrote to the district on the students’ behalf asking for “reasonable accommodation” to their request.

“Students practicing their right to religious expression should not be excluded from educational spaces, nor denied reasonable accommodation,” Hannah Vickner Hough, CAIR-WA’s legal director, wrote. “A graduation ceremony with one’s classmates is a formative experience for most students and the district should seek to provide appropriate arrangements to assure Muslim students are not unfairly excluded from this experience.”

Vickner Hough said that since the religious holidays are included in the OSPI’s document, SPS’ decision to schedule graduations on Eid al-Adha was either the result of “oversight, or negligence, or just disregard.”

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The students, she said, were discouraged by the district’s response to their advocacy and reschedule the ceremonies.

“It can possibly show they are not as worthy of celebration as other students,” Vickner Hough said. “It puts them in a precarious position of choosing to have to practice their faith and celebrate with classmates.”

This year’s graduation holds deep significance to students, who started their high school experience during the pandemic, Vickner Hough said.

“This is a very meaningful expression of what they have been through as students,” she said. “So not being able to access that as Muslim students is really disappointing.”

Vickner Hough urged districts to review the OSPI calendar.

“It’s not hidden information,” she said. “They don’t need to consider requests for accommodations if they consider [it] in advance.”