BROOKSVILLE — Rick Stone made sure he arrived early at the Hernando High School gym Tuesday night so that he would not miss a moment of his youngest son's graduation.
He never got a chance to see Josh walk across the platform to accept his diploma. In fact, a lot of angry people missed the ceremony because they were told there was no room at the gym.
According to Stone and others, school officials closed the doors to the gym more than 45 minutes before the scheduled start time of 7:30 p.m. Anyone wanting to watch the ceremony was directed to the auditorium where it was being shown on closed circuit TV.
Stone said he was hugely disappointed.
"You put your kid through school for 13 years looking forward to the day when they graduate and then you're told you have to watch it on television?" Stone asked. "That's just not right."
Hernando High assistant principal Dianne Saltsman told BayNews 9 reporter Ferdinand Zogbaum she was unaware that people had been barred from the gym.
"At five until 7 Mr. (Mark) Griffith, one of our other assistant principals, was over in the area and parents were still going in and out," Saltsman said.
Stone, who brought along his video camera to capture the ceremony, said the footage he shot disputes that. He said that when he arrived about 6:40 p.m. he saw several officers from the Brooksville Police Department and the Hernando County Sheriff's Office blocking the doors.
No one, he said, was allowed in or out. Stone's video shows more than a dozen irate family members berating the deputies and pleading to be let into the gym. As more family members arrive, the growing crowd outside the gym can be heard chanting in protest of their treatment.
"It was just poor, poor planning," said parent Paul Nazar. He said his family arrived at roughly 6:40 for his son's graduation, only to be turned away. "My mother drove here from Key West and had to watch on a (expletive) TelePrompTer," Nazar added.
Principal Betty Harper said the school gives each senior six or seven tickets and people are allowed into the gymnasium on a first-come, first-served basis. When the gym is at capacity, others are directed to overflow seating in the arts center where they can watch the ceremony on a large-screen television, she said.
"We can't determine who the parents are, but everyone who comes in has to have a ticket," she said. "At a certain time, we do close the doors as the procession has to come in. That's how it's been for the five years I've been here and probably the five years before that."
Nevertheless, Harper said incoming principal Ken Pritz has approved a plan to hold future graduations outdoors in the football stadium, at the suggestion of the School Advisory Committee.
Harper said only a small number of families were excluded from the gym Tuesday, and some were eventually let in when open seats were found.
For Rick Stone, that was hardly a consolation.
"It seems nobody was thinking of the graduates or the families," Stone said. "And I missed seeing my son graduate because of it."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or 848-1435. BayNews 9 broadcast reporter Ferdinand Zogbaum contributed to this report.