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Graduation speeches are no time to go off script, principals say

WESLEY CHAPEL — Life is hectic when you're a student who acts, cheers, heads the student government and takes advanced classes. So it was 1 a.m. when Abigail Hudak of Wesley Chapel High School wrote her graduation speech.

She thought she'd be able to revise it. But she was not allowed to, as the principal had approved her first draft. Her free-thinking mother encouraged her to give the speech as she saw fit at the May 31 ceremony, and she did.

As a penalty, Hudak had to wait until the following Monday to get her diploma.

"It was my big moment, not theirs," said Hudak, who views the act as a power play by the principal.

The response from district spokesman Linda Cobbe: "Principals have an obligation to maintain the dignity and decorum of the ceremony and consistently enforce rules."

A lot goes into graduation preparation. Officials worry about weather, crowd control and kids getting home safely from the after-parties.

But an important step — the vetting of the speeches — often gets little attention unless something goes wrong. And it can go wrong in a very big way.

A Texas legal group, the Liberty Institute, is criticizing the treatment of Remington Reimer, who had his microphone turned off after he strayed from his approved valedictorian speech June 6.

While Reimer says the district was censoring remarks about God and the Constitution, the Joshua Independent School District near Fort Worth says students cannot deviate from their approved speeches, regardless of content.

It doesn't end there: The institute alleges the principal threatened to send a disparaging letter to the U.S. Naval Academy, which Reimer will soon attend.

Closer to home, Wharton High School salutatorian Harold Shaw had his microphone turned off at his June 3 graduation after he lost his composure and briefly went off script. He had to pick up his diploma at school.

Shaw met previously with principal Bradley Woods, who considered his early draft inappropriate. Hillsborough School superintendent MaryEllen Elia addressed the issue at Tuesday's School Board meeting, saying Woods "had very good reason to be wary."

Another backstory that was not acknowledged: Earlier in the year, Shaw made a video that showcased unsanitary conditions in the school rest rooms and poked fun at Woods.

Long before graduation speakers put on their robes and mortar boards, many sit down with their principals for The Talk.

Kids are counseled on what topics are, and aren't, suitable. It's taboo to name friends, complain about a teacher or exhort the crowd to act irresponsibly.

"What I do is, I have an honest conversation with the student," said Bob Vicari, principal of Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg, where a committee reviews the speeches. "I ask them, what is in your head that you want to convey?"

At Springstead High School in Spring Hill, a committee tells students what is expected, what the format should be and helps with timing and presentation.

"This isn't a forum for your individual views on politics or global warming," said principal Susan Duval. "You're representing the entire class, not yourself up there."

Carla Bruning, principal of Newsome High School in Hillsborough, tells students the speech should be a time for reflection. If she has to ask for changes, "I tell them, 'You'll have other chances in your life to say what you want and exactly how you want to say it.' "

With 27 high schools, the Hillsborough district has worked hard in recent years to avoid disruptions.

"There certainly was a time when our graduation ceremonies were not as smooth and dignified as they are now," Elia said.

Headlines around the country speak of parents carted out of graduations for cheering too loudly and guests arrested for brawling. A student this year in Belton, Texas, announced to the crowd he was gay.

Many graduation speech dust-ups are about religious content.

Duval, the Springstead principal, got more attention than she wanted when she rejected a speech from a Harvard-bound valedictorian in 2009. The student wanted to tell her classmates, "It feels good to stick it to 'the Man' every once in a while."

The resulting outrage earned the student interview requests from around the country and an invitation to fly to New York to appear on CBS' The Early Show.

Hudak — who has exchanged messages with the Wharton salutatorian over Facebook — describes her years at Wesley Chapel High as a time of constant activity.

She was a cheerleader and ran track. She took Advanced Placement courses and passed the tests. She was an actor. "High school was like my life," she said. "It was a 24/7 job to me almost."

She was an effective student government president, she said, and considered herself a role model.

Things went downhill in senior year when several students, including Hudak, were turned away from the homecoming dance because their dresses were too short.

But overall, she talks of "life-changing" teachers and inspiring classes, especially AP biology. She plans to major in bio-chemistry at the University of Central Florida.

The ride home from graduation was difficult, said Ellen Wolf, Hudak's mother. Relatives had driven from Naples to be there.

"I was in shock and very frustrated," Wolf said. "I had a hard time letting it go."

But she was confident Hudak would be all right. And Hudak now says, "I'm going to tell my kids about this some day."

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Danny Valentine contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@tampabay.com.

Graduation speeches are no time to go off script, principals say 06/15/13 [Last modified: Saturday, June 15, 2013 9:09pm]
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