High School Bars Student From Graduation Walk For Discussing Bullying And Sexual Assault At School

By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

After a high school senior chose to deviate from a pre-approved speech at an event and instead discussed allegations of bullying and assault at the school, administrators provided a learning opportunity of what bullying is really about–banning the student from his graduation walk.

While the school could have simply let the matter go, it instead managed to enshrine itself in an avoidable controversy simply because it could not see beyond the administration’s collective egos and will suffer the resultant benefits of its actions: National embarrassment. 

KOIN newscast reported two days ago of a senior at Vancouver, WA’s Heritage High School chose to disregard an “approved” written speech before the student body and instead took it upon himself to announce what he believed to be the failure of the school to address allegations of sexual assault, harassment, and bullying among students. He encouraged lower classmates to bring these injustices to the forefront and to work toward a safer academic environment in the coming years. Such a transgression drew the ire of the school’s administration which led to the decision to bar him from the graduation walk as a form of punishment.

Excerpts from the graduation speech included:

“Through the years of high school, you will realize you can only count on yourself,” he says. “You will get made fun of. You will walk through these halls and get called ‘stupid,’ ‘ugly,’ an ‘idiot,’ a ‘piece of crap’ and so many, many more insults…To you underclassmen who have to endure the things the school throws at you for 2 or 3 more years, a school where the administration closes their eyes to everything that happens in the school; the sexual assault, the bullying, the depression, the outcasts — and they do nothing to fix it. They just cast it aside like it’s nothing, or if they do take notice they take the side of the accused and not the victim. And I feel sorry for you.”

It should be recognized that this graduation speech was made by a student for the students, in their own language and for their benefit. That is the purpose of a graduation speech, not the purview of school administration who take it upon themselves to dictate content for which they alone approve.  Judging from the resounding cheers by the student body, I would say the speech garnered much acclaim and identification.

While I cannot of course substantiate the claims of this student, nothing for which he claims sounds implausible given the nature of a high school and children of that age generally.  Rather than partaking in some soul searching by the faculty in how to address their approach to whatever shortcomings might have led a student to say such things, they instead seemed to move with a resolve to punish this student while he was still within their grasp, the final moment for which they have jurisdiction over him, the graduation walk. A coward’s act from a jilted administrator had only his press release to confirm who were the true bullies at the school:

Statement from Principal Derek Garrison:

“Yesterday, during our traditional “Moving Up” assembly, a student speaker departed from his pre-approved comments. He referenced a number of perceived negative aspects of the school, telling underclassmen they will deal with these issues during high school. As the speech went on, the student referenced his perspective of a story heard which involved another student. His comments had many inaccuracies, inflammatory statements and unsubstantiated accusations.

Administrators called the student in afterward to explain how spreading rumors and inaccurate information was extremely problematic. We met with him at great length, discussing several options for a restorative resolution, or as a final option, if the student didn’t want to work towards a resolution, disciplinary options would be undertaken (per school district policy) that could include not walking at the upcoming graduation ceremony. After considering the options, he opted to not participate in graduation.

Following the conversation with the student, his parent came to speak with administration. Shortly thereafter, a social media account attributed to the student posted an offensive and blatantly false statement about the conversation that took place with his parent – a statement I whole-heartedly, categorically and emphatically refute.

Even when people speak about very real and serious problems in the world in which we live, if they add untruths about other people, including students and staff, it can be considered harassment and bullying. When untruthful comments are made in public forums, such as hallways, classrooms or assemblies, we need to be mindful of their potential effect on others, and have a duty to protect them.

The staff at Heritage High School is dedicated to ensuring the physical and emotional safety of our students. Depression, mental health, bullying, sexual assault, and the right to not be falsely accused of such, are all very valid concerns. We work hard at ensuring our students are physically and emotionally safe every day. We thank you for your support of your children and the school in that common goal.”

My first impression upon reading the principal’s excuse was what happened to the confidentiality that schools seem to herald about internal discipline matters. It seems here that covering the school’s backside took priority over confidentiality. But regarding the topic at hand there was nothing contained within the speech that justified a barring the student from the graduation walk.  There was nothing in the speech that constituted an actionable defamation or slander. It did not have actual malice and nothing the student said was “shocking to the conscience.” In my opinion it was more a subjective measure of the administration’s alleged indifference to the problems at the school and if anything served as an example of a public participation exercise of free speech and a form of calling for the petition of the government for an address of his grievances. A school district in Washington State is a municipal corporation and it retaliated against this student for exercising his free speech rights and in a way he was punished for not speaking the compelled speech that the school approved.

On Friday, two hundred students staged a walk-out in support of the student.

At the time of publication of this article I haven’t seen if this row has been resolved or not. I cannot predict which way this will go and if the student will be permitted at the graduation walk. I can easily see the administration digging in its heals in a typical bureaucrat manner. But if they had any sense of self-preservation of their credibility they better think of damage control being more important than saving face or egos.  It is my belief that if they fail to allow this student his graduation ceremony he would have cause to take legal action against the school. We’ll see if the school chooses its battles well or not.

By Darren Smith

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.