"They want all students to feel included," Garrett Frederick's mother tells PEOPLE

By Darla Higgins
Updated June 08, 2016 03:55 PM
Credit: Courtesy of Frederick Family

When Garrett Frederick was a high school freshman, he began looking into what it would take to become a member of the National Honor Society.

Turns out, it takes quite a bit. In order to maintain good standing in the organization, members attend meetings, complete at least 20 hours per semester of community service projects and keep up at least a 3.6 grade point average.

“If you fail in any of those regards, you’re done,” says Garrett’s father, Norman Frederick. “You’re asked to leave.”

Garrett’s service projects over the years have included organizing a book fair, tutoring elementary school kids and working at a women’s shelter.

“I’m extremely proud of it,” Garrett, 18, tells PEOPLE of his work. “It’s a big commitment.”

That’s why he was baffled a couple of weeks ago, when he went to pick up his cap, gown and National Honor Society stole at Plano Senior High School in Plano, Texas. While he was given a white stole, which recognizes honor students for their grades only, he was told the students weren’t allowed to wear anything that distinguished them as NHS members.

Arriving home, he shared the news with his mother, KellyAnn Frederick.

“I told him that couldn’t be true,” she says, noting that the other two high schools in the district, Plano East and Plano West, offer them to students.

She emailed the principal, Sarah Watkins, and asked for clarification, adding, “Garrett and his fellow NHS members have worked so hard for so long. I do hope that this is indeed just a rumor.”

The following morning, Watkins replied in an email that honor graduates with grade point averages “wear the white stole. They do not wear any club or organizational regalia.”

KellyAnn then reached out to the NHS sponsor at the school, asking the same question. The reply: “This is a decision made by our administration. They want all students to feel included in graduation and do not want to single students out. This means that students in organizations cannot display anything on the gowns or hats. I hope this answers your question.”

“I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ ” KellyAnn recalls.

Her next step was to contact Plano Independent School District Superintendent Brian Binggeli, but she never received a reply. [PEOPLE s request for comment also went unanswered.] That’s when other parents got involved. A friend of the Fredericks sent an email to several school administrators, saying, “I sincerely hope that none of you show up at graduation with any special stoles or cords for your masters, doctorate degrees, etc. It might hurt the other teachers’ or administrators’ feelings.”

Since the news broke, the school district has stated that the rules excluding NHS stoles and other regalia are part of a long-standing tradition, which was voted on by students in 2004 and again in 2008. The Fredericks aren’t thrilled with that answer.

“The inconsistencies of their answers are troubling,” says Garrett, who is also on his high school s football team and will begin college in the fall at the University of South Carolina to pursue a career in sports management.

But he hopes that because of the controversy, future seniors who are in the NHS at Plano Senior High will be able to wear their stoles with pride.

“A lot of people have texted me and are happy I spoke up. But some of my friends who aren’t in the National Honor Society don’t think it’s a big deal. They don’t get it, all the hours and everything. Which means they wouldn’t care if we wore it or not.”

Garrett’s dad thinks it’s a big deal. Only about 150 students out of 1,400 in the graduating class have earned the honor, he notes.

“This happens to be an academic and community service excellence award that takes so much effort,” he says. “You’d think an administration would love to call these students out. The kids deserve it.”

Still, Garrett’s dad plans to ensure that there’s at least one National Honor Society stole at graduation.

“I’m trying to find one to buy online,” he says, “because I’m going to wear it.”