The day of May 22 was a day filled with many congratulations and much fanfare.

Family members from far and wide made the trek to be there on graduation day. But what many did not know was the unseen battle that had been brewing for months.

As the days and weeks began to pass, many seniors, myself included, felt an exciting new sense of freedom on the horizon: graduation, what we had all been working on for four long years; years filled with COVID, renewed calls for racial reckoning, and most of all, years filled with change. And I, like many, developed my own COVID pet project, fighting the seemingly never-ending battle of gun violence in the country. As the lead of Students Demand Action of New Mexico alongside my dedicated colleagues at Moms Demand Action, we successfully championed the passage of H.B. 9 — a crucial piece of legislation curbing gun violence within our state.

And for that work, the national Students Demand Action awarded me a Wear Orange Honor Cord, something I am very proud of. That happiness quickly dissipated once I saw the graduation contract. Outlining students were required to wear the cap and gown provided, and we could “[N]ot alter or decorate them in any manner.”

In that sentence, Cleveland High School administration, and by extension, the school district, not only stripped students of their individuality, but did so while reinforcing the underlying message of racial inferiority, from indigenous students wearing their regalia on stage to Black and Latine, students denied the right to wear graduation stoles celebrating our unique challenges, identities and accomplishments.

Of course, students were involved in this decision-making process, right?

Wrong! This decision, made by the first graduating class, would remain in place for the foreseeable future, according to Stacy Salinas, the activities director at the high school.

In a senior class meeting held on Feb. 16 to discuss graduation policy, she stated that the decision was based on the principles of uniformity and belonging to the “Storm Family” and that students are “equal.” But of course, as BIPOC or other marginalized groups already know, At CHS some students are more equal than others.

Yet, there were exceptions for students in the National Honor Society; they received a silver cap, a stole and honor cords. For these privileges, members paid a fee and maintained a GPA of 3.0 or higher, as outlined by the national guidelines. The school’s policy highlights the inequality between students: those having the time and money and those who do not.

But on the other hand, students with outside-of-school and in-school extracurriculars were not recognized. Does that policy seem equal, as Stacy Salinas posits? We worked just as hard for our accomplishments, so why are we secondary? And to this, we are told: We will recognize you with whatever you want, only after you step out of the spotlight, sending the message that reverberates back to the damaging era of “separate but equal” in Plessy v. Ferguson.

This policy is an embodiment of the administration’s disconnect with their students. It’s larger than honor cords — it is about our identities and it must change. All students should be able to acknowledge our unique challenges, identities and accomplishments with what we wear.

Ivan Torres is a member of many organizations, including Students Demand Action New of New Mexico and Students for Policy Change.