Stop the Presses:

An embarrassment of obsessed administrators

 

by Mike Kroll

 

This is the time of year when students, family and friends celebrate graduation of high school and college all across the nation. And it is and should be a celebration. Not only are we celebrating an important accomplishment of our children, it is also an important milestone in their lives and pursuit of adulthood and independence. But for some, including the uptight administrators of School District 205, celebration is a totally inappropriate approach. They insist on a solemn, funeral-like ceremony where graduates march like identical robots across a stage to the silence of a crowd that dare not move, cough or sneeze much less cheer or applaud their child's accomplishment (subtle smiles are allowed if no one notices). Students are reminded that there is a proper time and place for good cheer and joy but apparently it is not on school property.

This year five of 268 GHS graduates were denied their diploma because of audience behavior at the ceremony. Audience behavior that even school officials admit wasn't that bad but violated the very strict  school policy. Galesburg has once again made national news as we embarrassed ourselves as uptight clueless hicks.

Draconian graduation rules were supposedly prompted after the GHS class of 2005 graduation ceremony. The Associated Press story that has run nationwide states:

“School officials in Galesburg, a working-class town of 34,000 that is still reeling from the 2004 shutdown of a 1,600-employee refrigerator factory, said the get-tough policy followed a 2005 commencement where hoots, hollers and even air horns drowned out much of the ceremony and nearly touched off fights in the audience when the unruly were asked to quiet down.

'Lots of parents complained that they could not hear their own child's name called,' said Joel Estes, Galesburg's assistant superintendent. 'And I think that led us to saying we have to do something about this to restore some dignity and honor to the ceremony so that everyone can appreciate it and enjoy it.'”

It is bad enough that Galesburg has received such embarrassing news coverage at the very time we are struggling to turn the local economy around and attract more residents and businesses. It is shameful that the events of the 2005 ceremony would be exaggerated to the point of total misrepresentation by school officials. My youngest son graduated in this class and my family and I attended that ceremony. Our recollections were far different from these characterizations so we carefully reviewed the DVD we made of the event.

 There was lots of cheering by audience members for the graduating students. Approximately four out of five students received some form of cheering varying in both length and duration but none more than ten seconds. Yes, audience behavior did lead to minor delays of a second or two or three on nine occasions. By our count 21 students mugged up on stage in one form or another, seven of which we characterized as more than just waves or hand gestures to the audience (I am sorry but none of us are sufficiently versed in gang signs to know for sure but putting one's fingertips together for form a triangle is hardly the end of civilization as we know it). There were two short beeps from an air horn, one each for two graduating brothers but no cow bells or amplified voices. There were at least four or five instances of the school band percussion section making a subtle noise when one of their own crossed the stage, however (perhaps we should ban the band?).

There was not a single student name that could not be heard during the graduation! The assistant principal reading the names however did manage to mispronounce at least 15 of the them in some way or another leading my son to wonder why such an affront to the solemnity of the occasion was tolerated from an ill-prepared participant. The behavior of some kids on stage was a bit over the top and the audience was clearly in a celebrating mood but nothing like the atmosphere described by school officials and others attempting to defend this asinine policy.

Compare this to the graduation celebration at Knox College one week later. While no one is forced to sign any ridiculous contract as a condition of participation and all are free to celebrate the occasion at Knox and few would question the appropriateness of participant behavior yet most of the Knox graduates would have not received their diploma under GHS rules.

Unfortunately this latest graduation flap is merely a symptom of what is wrong with our school district. The real problem here is one of degree and reasonableness. Clearly, certain behavior is out of bounds at graduation ceremonies. Any rational person would agree that a family cheering on their graduate for 5 seconds is NOT unreasonable while bringing in your own loud speaker or air horn IS unreasonable. This is called discretion and it needs to be returned to use within School District 205.

It is fact that in most academic respects GHS compares quite favorably to any public high school in central Illinois yet too few people recognize this. Things aren't perfect but if a student chooses he or she can get a top flight high school education here. There exists a broad curriculum, talented teachers and better than adequate facilities. Many GHS graduates go on to distinguish themselves in higher education and/or life in general.

Despite this many people believe GHS to be an out-of-control daily riot where education is but an occasional accident. I have lost count of the number of Galesburg adults I regularly meet who are afraid to send their child to this high school. The absolute and unwavering focus of school officials on discipline and the exaggeration of comparatively minor problems at GHS has created this misperception and done more harm to this school district than student misbehavior that has ever occurred at GHS.

Sure, GHS has problems as do all high schools, but they are comparatively minor and frequently overblown by district officials and our daily newspaper.  Do some kids get into fights? Do some kids drink or use drugs? Do some kids skip school? The answer is yes to all of these questions whether you apply them to GHS or any other public high school in 2007, 1997, 1967 or 1957. None of these problems are new or unique to GHS and none occur with sufficient frequency to merit the over reaction and unreasonable expectations of student behavior we see today.

In District 205 today there is no consideration of circumstances or measure of severity and very little due process. If a student is reported by a teacher or administrator for violating a rule he or she is not only presumed guilty but quite literally declared guilty. There are no civil or constitutional rights for students. No opportunity for defense and penalties are often far in excess of what common sense would warrant. There is nothing fair about such a system. A fair system treats all students the same and takes circumstances into account.

 

June 7, 2007