High school graduations bring out the best ... and worst

Fort Worth Star-TelegramJune 4, 2013 

Before high school seniors walk across the stage and pick up their diplomas, campus administrators sternly warn them to behave during commencement.

But parents and grandparents, you must mind your p’s and q’s, too.

While graduation ceremonies are intended to be solemn, dignified events, overly exuberant family members can ruin the milestone moment for others with boisterous cheering and blasts from air horns.

Ushers and police officers keep a close watch on those in attendance — while school officials keep an eye on the students — making sure that the rowdiness is kept in check and that rules are followed.

Mary Bowman, an usher at the Fort Worth Convention Center — where 17 graduations will be held this year — says the problems start early, with family members knocking on the arena doors, insisting to be let in before it opens.

She often has to tell families that no, they can’t rope off whole sections to save seats for late-comers. It’s first-come, first-served, period. And anyone trying to sneak onto the floor to take close-up photos is in for a rebuke from ushers.

“It’s all drama,” Bowman said. “It’s supposed to be celebration but it’s all drama. They’re excited. They want to get to their graduates and take pictures and say congratulations.”

Some spectators obstruct the views of folks sitting in rows behind them by hoisting huge posters or blocking aisles to take videos or photos. And others simply make it all about themselves and get up and leave after their graduate has walked across the stage — another common distraction.

And yes, the disruptions can result in punishment.

Last year, a South Carolina mother was handcuffed, arrested and escorted from a graduation after cheering too loudly as her daughter crossed the stage. She was charged with disorderly conduct, according to news reports.

Fort Worth police say they’ve made no arrests during graduations but have had to tell people to settle down and to confiscate air horns, said officer Sharron Neal, a police spokeswoman.

‘Commencement etiquette’

Weeks before the end of the school year, campus administrators meet with seniors and write to their parents to explain the rules for commencement in the hope of cutting down on antics. Teens are expected to be on their the best behavior, and officials take a dim view of tomfoolery.

Seniors are often told to give their cellphones to their parents and not to write anything on their caps or gowns. And there’s a long list of items that are not allowed, which, depending on the venue, can include beach balls, aerosol Silly String, helium balloons, noisemakers, flowers and beads.

In early May, Northwest High School’s graduation coordinator Elise Ponce issued these instructions before graduation, scheduled for June 11 at the University of North Texas Coliseum in Denton.

“Behavior during the ceremony is very important. All graduates deserve to celebrate their graduation with pride and dignity,” Ponce wrote. “Students who choose to deprive their classmates of this honor will be removed from the ceremony, no questions asked. Please encourage your family and friends to be respectful as well. You only graduate from high school once, so let’s make it a special time for everyone.”

For Everman High School’s graduation, scheduled for Wednesday at the Wilkerson-Greines Activity Center in Fort Worth, the first page of the program includes a section labeled “commencement etiquette.”

It says: “The commencement ceremony is a special dignified event for graduating seniors their families and guests. Appropriate behavior is expected of every person participating in and attending the ceremony.”

Spectators are told to turn off cellphones and other electronic devices, stop conversations during speeches, keep their seats while graduates file in and out, and go to designated areas to take pictures or video, Everman High Principal Nita Page said.

‘I drove six hours to whistle’

On Thursday, Azle High School’s commencement wasn’t a staid event, but no one was unruly. There were multiple signs on the doors of the Fort Worth Convention Center arena saying: “Be courteous. No noisemakers.”

Yellow signs were taped to railings telling folks “no saving seats.”

As the graduates filed into the arena to Pomp and Circumstance, people waved, whistled and shouted the names of their graduate. Later, as graduates’ names were read, most of the applause was during pauses between names. A couple of people held signs up congratulating their student.

Samm Stark of Odessa readily says she let out a whistle during the ceremony to support her nephew Chance Lindsey.

“I wanted him to know I was out there,” Stark said. “I drove six hours to whistle. It’s a celebration and I think the students appreciate all the applause.”

Jackie Sherman, who was at the Azle High ceremony to see her niece Cheyenne Cloud graduate, was grateful for the no-noisemaker rule.

“When they have bullhorns it is hard to get your focus back or to hear. For me, just the yelling and the clapping is better,” said Sherman, of Azle.

At Trinity High School, which held its commencement Saturday, cultural practices of Euless’ sizable Tongan population are influencing commencements. Some students wear money or candy necklaces, said Faye Beaulieu, an 18-year veteran of the Hurst-Euless-Bedford school board who has been to many commencements.

During Saturday’s ceremony, some family members spelled out graduates’ names with giant cardboard letters while cheering loudly.

Officials must walk a fine line between allowing families to celebrate and making sure it is contained enough for everyone to enjoy, Beaulieu said.

“You will hear families that are just so proud of their graduate that they will erupt in applause. We do tell them that it is a celebration and a special time. As a student goes across, you will hear a whoop or two or maybe a blast of an air horn, but that’s extremely discouraged,” Beaulieu said. “... Mostly people are very, very respectful. They want to see their graduate and the people next to them want to hear theirs too.”

‘It’s just an annoyance’

At TCU’s Daniel-Meyer Coliseum, which is hosting high school graduations from Fort Worth, Burleson, Arlington and other school districts, police will confiscate any air horns brought in, said Flo Hill, director of TCUs conference services.

“It’s just an annoyance,” Hill said. “We probably get five or six in an evening.”

Also, confetti is definitely out. Housekeeping staffers must either employ industrial vacuums to clean it up or pick up carpet squares and remove it, Hill said.

High school graduations can be stacked as many as four in one day at the Fort Worth Convention Center. Families are not allowed to tape things up on walls or sneak in air horns.

Helium-filled balloons are also a problem, because staffers have to retrieve them when they float to the ceiling, said Chris Harmon, operations manager at the convention center.

School districts sign a lease agreement that includes a $100 charge for each helium balloon center officials have to retrieve from the 100-foot ceiling.

“We’re cycling things through here so quickly that we’ve got to make things as nice for the next one,” Harmon said. “We can’t go cleaning up things like Silly String and confetti. You don’t want to come in here and find the place in a mess.”

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