CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the policy for a $20 "keepsake" cap and gown. That is an LAUSD directive, not the California Department of Education.
As thousands of Southern California seniors are preparing for their public high school graduation ceremonies, many have no idea that it’s against state law for their schools to require them to buy a cap and gown without offering a set to wear for free.
According to the law, school districts must provide graduation attire at no cost to students or their families if required during the commencement ceremony.
The legislation is aimed at ensuring that low-income students have access to the same essential campus activities as their peers.
According to the California Supreme Court, the high school graduation ceremony is “an integral part of the educational process.”
But some schools are failing when it comes to communicating the law to students and their families, which is leading them to spend money for no reason.
One parent who recently discovered she’d paid unnecessarily is Hilda Guzman, whose daughter Stephanie is a senior at Wallis Annenberg High School, part of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Stephanie suffers psoriatic arthritis, which has disabled her so much that she had to miss several weeks of school.
“It has progressively gotten worse,” Guzman told the I-Team, displaying the many medications her daughter has to take to manage her condition.
Despite her challenges, Stephanie has earned her diploma, and her mother didn’t hesitate in January when the school presented parents with several payment options for “graduation packages” that included a fee for a cap and gown.
The packages ranged from $53 to $179.95. Hilda says she chose the $53 package, which included a cap and gown, along with 10 graduation announcements — all she says she could afford after paying for prom, senior photos and her daughter’s many medical bills.
“What we do as parents, you want to give them this experience, you know, but it’s tough,” Hilda said. “With Stephanie and all that she’s been through, I wanted to make sure that I tried to give her at least some kind of normalcy to be like the other kids.”
She later discovered the school had failed to inform her that she could have gotten the graduation attire for free.
“School administrators are providing ambiguous rules to students when the law is very clear that they cannot charge students for caps and gowns,” explained Victor Leung, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Leung says the ACLU has been alerted by parents at districts throughout Southern California, who complain they were never informed about the law.
The I-Team contacted the LAUSD, which confirmed that some schools in the district have not effectively communicated the law to students and their parents.
According to Nadar Delnavaz, LAUSD’s Coordinator of College and Career Education, the district recently entered into an agreement with a new vendor to provide free caps and gowns to students.
But, Delnavaz told the I-Team, some schools which had prior relationships with other “cap and gown” vendors were not alerted to the district’s deal until after vendors made presentations to parents.
“If [parents] have changed their minds and they do not want to keep the cap and gown [they already purchased], then the district will … refund those parents who have paid for it,” Delnavaz said.
The LAUSD will also have make a full payment to its own cap and gown vendor, even if students don’t end up using those garments.
Hilda says she’s been told by her daughter’s school that she’s the only one complaining about paying cap and gown fees, but she says she believes she’s not the only parent in LAUSD with a sick child, working to make ends meet.
“They’re not complaining because they don’t know. They don’t know the law and it’s your responsibility as a school to tell them,” Hilda said.
If you think your school is not in compliance, you can file a complaint form that can be downloaded here.
Here are other educational activities California public schools are not allowed to charge for, according to state law:
- Science lab equipment or supplies
- PE uniforms required to take the class
- Participating in sports teams
- Attending graduation ceremonies
- Books used in class
- Photography or art class supplies
- Attending summer school