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“Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” – Avoiding Liability Issues Related to High School Graduation and Commencement Exercises

Posted by ASHLEY STORY | May 01, 2017 | 0 Comments

May 2017

With the pomp and circumstance that accompanies high school graduation, districts are in the spotlight to showcase the graduates and their accomplishments. As such, districts are vulnerable to legal pitfalls and challenges when executing the graduation ceremony. When developing graduation programs and preparing for this exciting time, it is important to remember the potential various legal issues that may arise from determining a student's valedictorian status, denying a student's opportunity to participate in the graduation ceremony, and enforcing decorum policies at graduation ceremonies, to best serve the students, their families, and the interests of the district. Student Participation in Graduation Ceremonies

High school graduation is often regarded as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for students to celebrate all their years of hard work and academic success as they transition into the next chapter of their lives. Many individuals believe that participation in the graduation ceremony is a right conferred upon a student once he/she completes requisite coursework and satisfies the criteria mandated by State law to obtain a high school diploma. Due to this widely-held belief, a decision by district administration to deny a student who has earned his/her high school diploma the opportunity to participate in the graduation commencement ceremony, based to the student's violation of district policy or state law, can generate legal challenges from the student and his/her parents/legal guardian. While students generally have a right to a diploma upon their completion of graduation requirements, there is no constitutional right to receive that diploma at the graduation ceremony. Similar to participation in prom, sports, and other extra-curricular activities, walking across the graduation stage is merely a privilege afforded to students. Courts across multiple federal jurisdictions have consistently held that students have no constitutionally-protected right to participate in graduation ceremonies. In fact, a federal district court in Texas held that “while the [c]ourt recognizes that high school graduation is an important and memorable occasion in a young person's life, ‘walking across the stage' certainly does not rise to the level of a constitutionally protected property interest any more than attending one's high school prom … [i]t is an actual high school diploma which is the property interest;” thus, a student who failed part of a general competency examination did not have “constitutional right to receive that diploma at a specific graduation ceremony.” Williams v. Austin Indep. Sch. Dist., 796 F. Supp. 251 (W.D. Tex. 1992). Similarly, South Carolina courts also appear to recognize that participation in graduation ceremonies is not a constitutionally-protected right. In 2010, parents of a high school senior enrolled in Newberry County School District challenged the decision of the district administration to exclude their son from participating in his school's graduation ceremony due to the student's arrest and charge of a violent crime. The student's parent filed an injunction against the district requesting that the district allow the student to participate in its graduation ceremony, alleging that the school's denial of this opportunity violated the student's rights. The court denied the injunction, holding that a student's participation in graduation exercises is not a right but a privilege afforded to students by the district. The court emphasized that because a student's participation in a commencement is a privilege, the district is free to exercise its discretion in determining whether to allow or deny students that opportunity. Nonetheless, districts should make it clear through district policy that graduation is not a right but a privilege in which the district administrators have the discretion to revoke under certain circumstances, such as a student's violation of law or district's policies. By establishing such policies, districts can foreclose any disputes related to student participation in graduation ceremonies. Parent's Ejection from a Graduation Ceremony

Many districts within South Carolina have implemented policies that require attendees to refrain from cheering, whistling, applauding, or displaying other boisterous behavior until all the graduates' names have been announced during the roll-call portion of the graduation commencement ceremony. Violators of these decorum policies may potentially be removed from the ceremony by law enforcement. While graduation ceremony decorum polices are legally permissible and intended to facilitate an orderly ceremony and ensure that all the names of graduates are audible as they are announced, districts should be aware that the implementation of such policies may potentially subject them to liability. The potential for liability may arise from the ejection of a parent/guardian or other attendees from the graduation ceremony by law enforcement due to excessive cheering or behavior deemed impermissible by the district's graduation ceremony decorum policy. In fact, in 2012, a district in Florence County was sued by a parent of a graduating high school senior who was removed from a graduation ceremony and arrested by local law enforcement after the parent cheered “too loudly” when her daughter's name was called, in violation of that district's decorum policy. Upon her ejection from the graduation ceremony, the parent was subsequently arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, which was eventually dismissed. Shortly thereafter, the parent filed a complaint against the district, the City of Florence, and the City of Florence Police Department for wrongful imprisonment, abuse of process, defamation, assault and outrage. While the actual liability against the district was unlikely due to various immunities provided by the state law and the fact that the arrest was facilitated by law enforcement, the district resolved the case for a nominal value. As this case illustrates, when a parent or other family member is ejected from their loved one's graduation ceremony and/or arrested by law enforcement, a district is subject to various claims including but not limited to wrongful arrest, false imprisonment, defamation, assault, defamation, and/or outrage. Districts may also face claims for negligent hiring, training, or supervision if the removal and/or arrest of a graduation attendee involves School Resource Officers (“SROs”). Although there is a small chance that similar allegations against a district will actually result in liability, districts should be aware of the potential claims that may result from the enforcement of the graduation ceremony decorum policies in conjunction with the presence of local law enforcement. Valedictorians

The tradition of schools recognizing the student with the highest grade point average (GPA) has recently prompted several challenges from students and their parents and/or legal guardians. Specifically, challenges often arise when a student's class ranking is decreased due the transfer of a student from another district with a higher GPA or when it appears that a student's status as a valedictorian is due an accommodation, such as homeschooling, which allowed the student more opportunities than other students to take advantage of advanced placement and other weighted courses. It is important for districts to set clear policies that establish the method in which student GPAs and class rankings are calculated, and districts should clarify the manner in which valedictory and other academic honors are conferred upon students. Policies should be applied consistently each year when awarding honor status, and “perks” that accompany that status should not be adjusted depending on the student who receives the honor. In other words, school administrators should ensure that they calculate student GPAs to determine class ranking and the selection of the valedictorian in good faith and in a manner consistent with their established policies to prevail over challenges from students or his/her parent/legal guardian. The Supreme Court of South Carolina has consistently refused to interfere with the internal decisions of school administrators and districts “unless there is clear evidence of corruption, bad faith, or a clear abuse of power.” Davis v. Greenwood Sch. Dist. 50, 365 S.C. 629, 635, 620 S.E.2d 65, 68 (2005); accord Singleton v. Horry Cnty. Sch. Dist., 289 S.C. 223, 227–28, 345 S.E.2d 751, 753–54 (Ct.App.1986). In the case of Palms v. District of Greenville County, 408 S.C. 576 (2013), a student's parents sought a writ of mandamus directing that district to restore high school student's GPA and class rank to the higher levels originally calculated under district's formula for transfer students, following reduction of the students GPA after other parents expressed concern that the transferor school inflated grades. The Court held that the parents failed to present a justiciable controversy because there was no evidence that district acted corruptly, in bad faith, or that it abused its power when it recalculated the student's GPA and ranking. The Court further explained that grade calculation was fundamental function of district, and disputes such as what student would be named valedictorian were academic disputes for the district to resolve, not the courts. Therefore, it is clear that districts may prevail in legal disputes arising from its calculation of grade point averages and determination of its valedictorians as long as established policies are followed in good faith and in a consistent manner. Should you have any questions about your district's policies or practices related to graduation exercises, please feel free to contact this firm. White & Story, LLC wishes all our state's 2017 graduates much success in their future endeavors. Download PDF

About the Author

ASHLEY STORY

Originally from Cheraw, South Carolina in Chesterfield County, Ashley Story takes a personal interest in public education since she attended public schools in her home county and graduated from Cheraw High School. Public school teachers and administrators are highly regarded by Ashley, as she gai...

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