Sunday, June 21, 2015

Excessive commencement cheering should not spell jail time

I've been to my fair share of commencement ceremonies. They're joyous, but usually very long events, often held outdoors in hot weather, or in humid auditoriums. Administrators regularly exhort graduates, their friends and family to keep their whooping and hollering in check. Some even warn that excessive cheering will lead to eviction from the event.

Every year, news reports spotlight overly enthusiastic supporters slammed with citations for disturbing the peace. Several years ago, I wrote about a couple of incidents that resulted in such arrests. In one case, administrators withheld diplomas from students whose families were deemed to have crossed the line.

While I think such responses are excessive, if the rules make clear that attendees can be ejected for excessive cheering, they should abide by the rules or expect to suffer the consequences.

Legal charges do seem over the top, though. And holding a student in cap and gown responsible for the behavior of family and friends in the stands? That's punishing the wrong person for the infraction.

Reports hit the news a few weeks ago of yet another commencement disturbance, this one in Senatobia, Miss. Arrest warrants were issued to four people for excessive cheering at the May 21 high school commencement ceremony. The Associated Press reported that Senatobia's school superintendent Jay Foster, "said that over the past few years, the yelling and screaming at graduation has become too disruptive, and made the ceremony unbearable." The AP also reported that charges brought against the revelers could result in "a fine of up to $500 and jail time of up to six months."

Foster acknowledged that he got "a lot of negative phone calls and emails" about the crackdown, but added that he'd also received a lot of support for his action. Support or no, less than three weeks later the complaints were withdrawn.

Foster and the school district did the right thing by withdrawing the complaints. Weighing the severity of the action, they wisely chose not to have the punishment exceed the "crime."

For the mother of one of those charged for cheering on his little sister at the ceremony, dismissal of the charges was not enough.

"I'm not done with him," Linda Walker told the AP, referring to Foster. Walker said she was talking to a lawyer and "it's going to cost them some money."

Just as the Senatobia school district has every right to enforce the rules it sets for commencement activities, Walker has every right to file suit over the incident, although doing so also seems excessive and another move that diverts attention from where it should be.

Unruly cheerers, the school district's actions in bringing charges rather than trying to better supervise graduation ceremonies (as hundreds of other schools do across the country) and Walker's actions detract from what should be at the heart of commencement: celebrating students' accomplishments.

The right thing is for attendees to tamp down their exuberance, administrators to find better ways to manage such events, and students to take pride in earning their diplomas. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of  The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apartis a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Anonymous said...

If such things cannot be held In a civilized manner, they should be discontinued. The first step is to require admission passes which may already be the norm. Expulsion from the event may be suitable punishment, Should this not be possible, arrest may be proper, although it seems extreme.
But a year or two with no ceremony would do more than all the arrests combined. Then peer pressure and common sense may work.
As for a lawsuit, nothing happens except possibly a pile of dough for the parent and animosity towards the family forever by all teachers and administrators. Should that not matter, go for it.
Such events are held to make the families proud and enjoy the goodness. If they fail, then discontinue is the answer.

Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma.

William Jacobson said...


I support the school in ejecting people who truly disrupt the graduation. This is the school's event and they have the right to set the decorum of the event but how does pressing and pursuing charges against the family members of the kids that they've spent the last four years teaching furthering any legitimate goal?!? The school should be ashamed. It is not enough for the school to have dropped the charges... they should have had the common sense not to press for them in the first place but our public schools are falling remarkably short in common sense lately.

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA