Graduates, parents punished for 'excessive cheering'
NEW YORK — Year after year it's a sure bet that the comforting graduation mainstay "Pomp and Circumstance" is drowned out on occasion by airhorns, cowbells or the sheer lung power of proud friends and family. What appears to have changed is stiffer retribution for those in the crowd who don't want to save the party for later. In one case, a cheering mom was led off in handcuffs. In another, four grads were denied their diplomas because friends hooted too loudly. Jon Guriel understands how disruptive the hooting and hollering can be. When he collected his master's degree from Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania, the loved ones of the graduate before him celebrated a little too loudly for a little too long, including a shout-out from her son: "That's my mom!" They were still cheering during Guriel's walk."I had a professor and several classmates who questioned me afterward as if I skipped the ceremony simply because they never heard my name called," said the 29-year-old software salesman in Raleigh, N.C., who graduated in 2005. "I felt very cheated." But how far is too far in cracking down on guests at graduation ceremonies? And can a high school or college really punish a grad for misbehaving loved ones? The law differs from state to state and policies from school to school, said Ken Griffith, president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. But in 40 years as an educator and administrator in Wyoming, where even his tiny school in Guernsey has seen some airhorn action at graduation, Griffith thinks commencements have turned away from something more akin to weddings. "It used to be very sedate. Now it's more of a sporting event," he said. "The hooting and hollering impinges on the rights of other folks, but generally the kid should not be punished for what the family or the crowd has done." Many high schools and colleges dole out empty diploma holders as a deterrent, forcing seniors to collect the real thing after commencement is over. At other schools, officials have taken more unusual steps. Archbishop Thomas Rodi refused last year to take photos from the commencement line with two grads at McGill-Toolen High School in Mobile, Ala., because of disruptions when their names were called. The school's commencement went off smoothly this year, said the Rev. Msgr. Stephen E. Martin. "As always the students were well behaved," he said. "Unfortunately last year some of the guests in the stands did not observe the requested decorum." Things were far rockier earlier this month at Iesha Cooper's graduation at South Florence High School in South Carolina. Her mom, Shannon Cooper, whooped it up and was led out in handcuffs on a disorderly conduct charge that cost her $225 bond and several hours in custody. "I got up and I said, `Yay, my baby made it, yes!' It was just a regular cheer," the mom grumbled to TV station WPDE after her release. Iesha was in tears when she saw her mom cuffed in a police van outside the Florence Civic Center, where crowd members had been warned not to cheer or they would be tossed out. Four seniors at a suburban Cincinnati high school were denied their sheepskins because of "excessive cheering" by their guests. The principal told them to perform 20 hours of community service in exchange for their diplomas due to the behavior of their friends and family, though they were not denied access to their transcripts and are technically graduates. Nothing about that makes sense to Traci Cornist, mom of one of the Mt. Healthy Four, 19-year-old Anthony Cornist. "It took away so much from how happy I was," she told Cincinnati radio station WDBZ. While Cornist considers legal action, school officials defend rules on cheering as fair so all graduates can be recognized, and necessary to keep lengthy commencements commencing. "They have indeed worked hard," Griffith said of graduates. "And because of that hard work people should respect the ceremony, they should respect the classmates, they should respect people around them. Celebrate later. Celebrate all you want. Later." Keisha Pickett, a reading teacher at Hillsborough High School in Tampa, thinks the two recent cases take punishment too far. "For some, like at my school, they're the first to graduate in the entire family," she said. "I'm all for respecting other families, but parents should be able to cheer their kids on. They didn't know if they'd make it through the streets, the battle every day. I have tears in my eyes just thinking about it." Pickett thinks there should be wiggle room in the flow of graduates across a stage to offer the freedom for longer pauses between each. For smaller schools, maybe, Griffith said, but hardly an option for graduating classes in the hundreds. "The more latitude you give, the harder it is to supervise," he said. "After a clear warning, an announcement, should something occur that I feel or the district feels is beyond what other people should have to experience, we have to walk you through the crowd and have a conversation."