Graduation decorum – Victory for sanity and reason

By Mike Kroll

Who could forget the Galesburg High School 2007 graduation ceremony (you can still read about it all over the web). Five students were initially denied their diplomas along with the right to participate in Project Graduation because audience members cheered as they walked across the stage. All of the students and their parents had previously signed a contract that forbid cheering or exuberance of any kind during the ceremony and specified that students would be held accountable for the failure of audience members to adhere to the contract.  Even school officials later admitted that the audience behavior wasn't all that bad and other attendees noted that audience cheering and exuberance were in evidence while other students crossed the stage who were not punished. A loud public outcry against the school district's actions quickly arose across town and local news stories were quickly picked up nationally. It was an embarrassment and public relations disaster for the school district and our community in general and eventually all five of the affected graduates received their diplomas.

The problem arose following the 2005 GHS graduation ceremony that was described by school district officials as “over the top” and “out of control” and “the straw that broke the camel's back” due to “inappropriate behavior” by both graduating seniors and audience members alike.  The idea of the somber ceremony contract was initiated after a group of well-connected parents combined with uptight school officials to over react and make a big deal out of graduation celebrations that are commonplace across the nation. At high schools, colleges and even military academies it is common for graduates to be cheered and for the atmosphere of the graduation ceremony to be a festive celebration rather than a somber joyless affair favored by the uptight few.

When first unveiled in the spring of 2006 a small number of us in the community, this writer included, denounced the contract as heavy handed and counter productive and something that could not be equitably enforced. It was pointed out how unfair and unreasonable it is not only to hold students accountable for the behavior of audience members but to deny students and family alike the opportunity to celebrate this significant accomplishment. But school officials ignored the criticism and the 2006 graduation came off without the big brouhaha that came the following year. When things went to hell in a hand basket in 2007 school officials were astonished at the public reaction. They had ignored earlier complaints and figured after the 2006 experience that this was settled policy accepted by all.

But it wasn't and frankly school officials should have foreseen the inevitable blowback.

The shame of this story isn't just that a well-connected few thought that this was a good way to force their views upon the entire community without encouraging any real discussion (that would have made clear that uptight anti-celebration view was an extreme minority view); it was that Galesburg had to first become a nationwide joke before that discussion would be permitted to occur.

Earlier this school year a special committee was formed to study what happened during the 2007 graduation and to evaluate the graduation contract. This committee consisted of a cross section of community and school members and even included a pair of students. They  brought a wide variety of perspectives along with a dose of common-sense  to the issue. In a last ditch effort to manufacture the appearance of community support for the heavy handed approach school officials crafted a meaningless survey that ultimately backfired. They also did an Internet search of news stories relating to high school graduation behavior and discovered that celebratory behavior was typical of most such events and occasionally got out of hand. Duh!

In the end this committee came to the rather obvious and predictable conclusion that many people DO want to celebrate at high school graduations and that most such celebration is harmless and does not infringe on the ability of others to enjoy the event. A few people, students and audience members alike, are likely to get carried away with their celebration and cross the line into disrespecting other attendees. Such disrespect must be discouraged and punished when it occurs but the judgment call of what crosses the line isn't always clear cut. And, not surprisingly, the most important aspect of the ceremony is each graduate's proud walk across the stage.

So what earth-shattering recommendations did this committee arrive at and propose to the school board Monday night?

Students should only be held responsible for their own behavior during the ceremony. That audience be permitted to cheer and applaud each individual graduate respectful of other attendees. No artificial noisemakers or inflatable objects or other disruptive items may be brought to the ceremony.  What was formerly called a “contract” is now referred to as an “acknowledgment” but continues to be very, very sanctimonious about student behavior as they cross the stage:

“Student behavior that is inconsistent with a commencement includes, but is not limited to, the following:

l  verbal outburst (yelling, screaming, howling, hooting, etc.),

l  physical movement such as dancing, gesturing, non-traditional handshaking, etc.

l  use of noisemakers,

l  behavior that focuses attention to an individual student,

l  violations of the student dress code,

l  use of silly string, beach balls, balloons, and similar objects.”

Except for the severe limitations on student conduct that will practically make tripping on stage cause for being denied the “complimentary diploma” this is a very reasonable new take on graduation conduct. I still fail to see how a diploma that was earned in the classroom is conveniently considered “complimentary” (perhaps it really isn't worth that much after all?) or that a non-traditional handshake will destroy the graduation experience for everyone present but I otherwise welcome the return of reason. In time perhaps even the acknowledgment will be softened if reason continues to prevail.

For that minority group that really, really must have the staid, solemn and joyless ceremony experience I suggest that they lighten-up and try a little exuberance for themselves. If they can't bring themselves to do that at least don't deny it to the rest of us. And to the 2008 GHS graduates, carpe diem.