CONCORD, Contra Costa County – Marking the 80th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order sending Japanese Americans into “war relocation centers” during World War II, Mt. Diablo High School will grant retroactive diplomas to students forced to leave the school in 1942 during its Class of 2022 graduation ceremony at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 24, at the Concord Pavilion, 2000 Kirker Pass Rd, Concord.

This historic effort came about due to the tireless work of Class of 1958 alumna Kimiyo Tahira Dowell and ethnic studies teacher Laura Valdez and her students, who lobbied the Mt. Diablo Unified School Board to confer the diplomas to former students or their families, based on a California law passed in 2003 that allowed school districts to retroactively grant diplomas to students who had not received them due to their incarceration during World War II, among other provisions. Dowell was herself incarcerated with her parents as a toddler.

The School Board agreed to revise its policies on March 23, paving the way for the presentation as part of Mt. Diablo High School’s graduation ceremony this month.

Dowell, Valdez and her students pored over the school’s 1942 yearbook and identified approximately 40 students who were sent to concentration camps with their families.

Many of the former students are now deceased and those who are still alive are in their 90s, making it difficult for them to attend the ceremony in person. However, the school expects up to two dozen family members of the former students to attend and accept the retroactive diplomas on behalf of their parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts.

Valdez said some of these relatives were close to tears when she told them about the school’s efforts on the phone. Some of their relatives, she said, have never spoken of the incarceration because it was so painful.

Valdez said she has incorporated the research for this effort into her ethnic studies class as part of students’ education about the unjust incarceration of Japanese Americans allegedly suspected of being disloyal to the U.S. Her students have watched propaganda about Roosevelt’s order that showed Japanese American families being loaded onto buses with their belongings and have read news accounts of their ordeals, she said.

The families will be seated in a special section of the pavilion and will be given the diplomas when they arrive. Dowell will announce the names of the former students immediately before the Class of 2022 diplomas are distributed. The school’s 2022 graduating class is expected to include these students as honorary members of its class.

A small “tailgate” style reception for the families will be held in the parking lot after the graduation, which is expected to conclude by 8:30 p.m.

If there are any eligible individuals or family members who have not been in communication with the school, contact Valdez at Keltyl@mdusd.org or Dowell at ktdowell99@gmail.com. For more information on the school district, visit: https://www.mdusd.org

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