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School board: Chavas Rawlins walked away from grad stroll

| Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, 12:02 a.m.
Laurie Sutovich talks to reporters, after Monessen School Board meeting on why her son Chavas Rawlins can't walk in Monessen's graduation. 
Jim Ference | The Valley Independent
Laurie Sutovich talks to reporters, after Monessen School Board meeting on why her son Chavas Rawlins can't walk in Monessen's graduation. Jim Ference | The Valley Independent

MONESSEN – Despite public outcry and what Monessen School Board President Sharon Mauck called a “media circus,” the board Tuesday refused to reconsider letting early-graduate Chavas Rawlins participate in June commencement exercises with the Class of 2013.

Calling a previous vote on the matter “a standing decision,” and saying it was just following the advice of Rawlins' advisors, Mauck vowed the board would not flinch.

On Dec. 4, the board voted to allow Rawlins to graduate Jan. 18, but amended the motion to state he “will not return for any senior activities or Commencement Exercises.” The motion passed, 8-1, with board member Maria Scuteri in opposition.

On Tuesday, Scuteri spoke against the measure, calling it “a travesty.” Board members Cindy Pawelec and Brent Lepresti, who moved and seconded the amended motion Dec. 4, declined comment.

Rawlins is on campus at West Virginia University preparing for spring courses. Rawlins' mother, Laurie Sutovich, attended the meeting and later said the issue was over Rawlins' past Twitter posts.

“When his coach brought him up here, all (the board) did was question him about his Twitter and Facebook, and I was really upset about that,” Sutovich said.

In reading a statement at the conclusion of Tuesday's meeting, Mauck denied that claim, saying the board was acting on recommendations that Rawlins “go and not look back.”

“The reason we decided this student cannot walk is not attributed to anything that was said on Facebook or Twitter. That would be a freedom of speech violation, and we are not that unsavvy of the law,” she said.

“I was going by what his mentors were telling me personally, to let him go and get him out of this negative environment.

“So, some of us as a board, figured he would not want to come back. The student did not object to the conditions of graduation. Not one time.”

In reference to Rawlins' mentors, Mauck mentioned only Monessen head football coach Andy Pacak by name.

Mauck said that when the board met privately with Rawlins and Pacak in October, the stipulation of not attending graduation was understood.

“At the time, we told him one of the conditions would be that once he graduated, he would be done with his high school experience, including walking at commencement,” Mauck said.

“With his football coach at his side, he said he understood and he accepted that. Neither the coach nor the student blinked an eye.”

Pacak, who did not attend Tuesday's meeting, confirmed that Rawlins agreed, but that the conditions had in no way been ratified.

“That discussion took place for informational purposes. There were a lot of questions asked, and when they mentioned graduation, he said, ‘If that's what I have to do, I'll do it,'” Pacak said in a telephone interview after the meeting.

“We did not leave that meeting with any type of deal or agreement in finality. There was no decision reached that night. Then on Dec. 4, they voted on it. My question is: What kind of a choice is that to give a kid? What is the justification for him not being able to walk?”

Three residents demanded the board rescind that vote, led by an impassioned plea by former teacher Ron Galilei.

He questioned why Rawlins would not be permitted at commencement, while students who had previously been arrested, suspended or expelled had been allowed to do the same.

Galilei accused the board of being vindictive over statements Rawlins made on Twitter this fall in support of three football teammates who were arrested after bringing drugs and guns into the locker room.

“Chavas Rawlins, who has satisfactorily completed all the requirements set forth by the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Monessen School Board for graduation, will be denied the opportunity that is afforded to each and every one of us only once in a lifetime – to participate in a high school commencement ceremony,” Galilei shouted.

“Nowhere in school policy does it state a student may not participate in commencement if he or she makes comments in any of our present-day social media. ... I would think (The First Amendment) far supersedes any policy decision by any school board.”

He ceased when Mauck banged her gavel, stating the three-minute allotment to speak had expired.

During her statement, Mauck referred to a “well-orchestrated plan” by Rawlins' adult advisors.

“I learned over this past weekend from a very reliable source that the student was told by his mentors to just say ‘yes' to the graduating terms now, and told, ‘Don't worry about the commencement, we will deal with that at a later date,'” Mauck said.

“This young man was exploited not only by his mentors, but by the media as well. This has turned into a media circus that Barnum & Bailey could be jealous of.”

Pacak took exception to that claim.

“There's no well-orchestrated plan that I'm aware of, except what is best for a young man who I look at as I'd be fortunate to be my kid,” Pacak said.

“They can say they're not basing it on his Twitter (remarks), fine, I'll agree, but then why is someone basically being punished for excelling?

“Is it more important for someone to say, ‘I stuck to my guns' rather than do the right thing?

“There's public outcry, because there's something the public deems to be unfair. This isn't over by a long shot.”

Mauck said the board is working on a policy for early graduates to avoid future problems.

When asked if she would consider legal action, Sutovich would not confirm or deny the possibility.

“It's his right to walk, and he will walk,” she said. “Someway, somehow, he will walk.”

Armed officers

Starting Wednesday, the Monessen Elementary Center will have an armed guard at the main entrance.

The school board on Tuesday unanimously hired four part-time officers: David Winkler, Chris Moody, Charles Kozar and Christopher Gray. All four work in law enforcement.

Shifts will be determined by district security director John Bachinski, who is stationed at the high school.

Mauck said the officers will not be in uniform, as to not alarm young students.

In a related action, the board eliminated the elementary center door-greeter position, effective Friday.

Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 724-684-2635.

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