High school graduations are supposed to be grand celebrations that cap students' secondary education. But in Hillsborough County the events can resemble more of a cattle call than a solemn assembly. Spectators at graduations, which are held at the Florida State Fairgrounds, often complain of being rushed in and out of the event hall, receiving rough treatment from security guards and having little time indoors for photos. Students only graduate from high school once, and the Hillsborough County school district should find ways to make the day more enjoyable for the graduates and their guests.
Rapid growth and unpredictable weather have forced Hillsborough high schools to hold graduations off campuses and in large indoor venues. The district, the country's eighth-largest, has 27 traditional public high schools. Each has its own graduation ceremony with as many as 6,000 people at a single program. The district has held graduations at the Tampa Convention Center and, in some years, split the ceremonies between the University of South Florida's Sun Dome and the fairgrounds. After the Sun Dome closed for renovations in 2011, the district moved all graduations to the fairgrounds.
The district holds up to four graduations a day at the fairgrounds. In between ceremonies, workers for the Florida State Fair Authority rearrange the hall to reflect each school's traditions. As spectators wait outside, temperatures and tempers can boil. Attendees say guards have refused early entrance to the elderly or disabled. Pressed for time, guards also aggressively clear the hall at the ceremony's end, denying requests to use the bathroom or snap pictures inside. This year, the Fair Authority said one of its security guards was fired after guests complained about mistreatment.
Staging graduations for more than 100,000 who attended this year is understandably a logistical challenge. Still, the Fair Authority should make special accommodations for the disabled or elderly, and it should treat all guests with respect. It would help if the district reduced the number of ceremonies it packs into a single day, a possibility the Fair Authority has raised. School officials also should consider splitting the graduations between other venues. The Sun Dome, for example, reopened in 2012 and played host to graduations from Pasco and Pinellas counties this year.
The public must expect a certain level of discomfort at large events. Graduations are no exception. Some attendees will abandon decorum. A crush of people will vie for access to entrance and exit doors at the same time. And in June, rain or shine, the weather will be intense. These variables are out of the district's control, and spectators would do well to pack their patience. But the district should attend to the small ways that make a big difference to graduates and their guests. Any event plans should include treating guests with consideration and respect and allowing everyone time to soak in the memories of such an important day.