HUDSON — Chris Jennett and Melvin Velez stood at the intersection of Hudson Avenue and Hicks Road, awed by the swirl of events around them.
Nearly three dozen of their Hudson High classmates and friends held up banners Wednesday afternoon and chanted, "Let them walk!" School bus drivers, students, even some teachers honked their horns, gave the thumbs up and otherwise signaled their backing for the boys and their friend, Anthony Siciliano, who have been banned from graduation over a senior prank.
"We're with you!" one mom shouted as she drove past. "Let them walk! Why not?" yelled another passerby.
"It's a good feeling," he said. "It's just really cool to see them all here to support us. We are like a family."
Velez took photos for his MySpace page.
"There's people here who aren't even in our class," he said. "It just shows they care, and it's nice. It just makes you feel good."
The boys, popular and known for their school spirit, have taken the heat for taking over the school public address system on the last day of senior classes to tell all seniors to come to a stage near the cafeteria. In the aftermath, someone pulled a fire alarm, further disrupting the day.
Principal Dave LaRoche said suspending the three from all further school activities, including graduation, was not an easy decision but it was one that would stand. Assistant superintendent for high schools Jim Davis deemed the matter closed, saying that principals have the authority to suspend students up to 10 days for violating the student code of conduct.
Senior class president Brooke Taylor said she and other classmates are looking at the code of conduct and other district policies in search of a loophole. Jennett's mom, Sue Meisegeier, said the families are exploring every possibility to get the boys to participate in Friday's commencement, as well.
She acknowledged that time is not on their side.
"I don't believe things will change, but we're still trying," said Meisegeier, who wore a pin with her son's graduation picture on it.
Both Jennett and Velez explained that they didn't think their prank would cause a problem, and that it was an innocuous alternative to what some other kids were talking about — like spray painting the school, or letting a pig loose inside. They noted the vandalism that some Hernando High seniors directed at their school this week as an example of what they didn't want to happen to Hudson.
"This was something that didn't really hurt anyone," Jennett said.
"We thought it was something harmless," Velez added. "But it ended up blowing up."
He suggested that the punishment doesn't fit the crime, but has come to accept that he and his friends are being held out as examples to future seniors.
"The people I feel worst about (are) our mothers and fathers," said Velez, who hopes to become a teacher after college. "I see it as something we did, and our parents shouldn't be paying for it."
Senior pranks don't always get the same results. And that's part of what bothers the students so much.
They've heard of a Panhandle student who gets to walk at graduation even after sneaking the F-word into the school yearbook. And they know about the Zephyrhills High students who got to walk in 2007 even after breaking into the school to try to spell "07" in the school lawn with plastic forks.
"We take it almost as a personal insult when administration says three of us can't walk," said senior Frank Serrano, who participated in Wednesday's protest. "We're going to try our best to get them to change it."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.