How much leeway should high school graduation speakers have?
Wharton High School's usually low-key principal Brad Woods made the news the other day for cutting off school salutatorian Harold Shaw's commencement speech before Shaw had finished it.
Hillsborough district spokesman Steve Hegarty told reporters that Woods ended the speech early because Shaw, who since hired a lawyer, deviated from his approved comments. Superintendent MaryEllen Elia later defended Woods' action, as well.
"When a student decides to challenge the rules or break the rules and the student is surprised that there are consequences, I am surprised," Elia told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday.
A similar, but unpublicized, scenario played out at the Wesley Chapel High School graduation ceremony on May 31. One of the student speakers went off the approved script, and the school withheld the student's diploma until administrators could meet with the parents the following week. (Unlike the Wharton situation, the student did get to finish the comments.)
The student later complained to the Pasco superintendent's office, saying in an email that "I felt like I should be able to say what I truly wanted to say," adding that "nothing was inappropriate or rude within my speech."
Times columnist Ernest Hooper has opined that schools should give students wider latitude to make the comments they want to make during graduation: "(T)he ceremony serves as an opportunity for the students to showcase the education they've received, including lessons about being responsible adults. You can't give them the keys to the car and then try to take the wheel back just because they veer in a different direction."
School officials, meanwhile, say it's their responsibility to maintain dignity and decorum at a solemn event.