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District to tame unruly grads

| Thursday, Aug. 18, 2005

Penn Hills School District officials said they will try to tame next year's high school graduation ceremony, after a group of graduating seniors complained about unruly behavior at June's graduation.

"The behavior we are addressing includes beach balls during speeches, not complying with the requested attire, the disrespect demonstrated by various students, the antics displayed on stage, and/or the use of marijuana during the ceremony," the group of about 10 graduates said in a letter sent earlier this month to the school board, superintendent and assistant superintendent.

Officials tolerated the unruly and inappropriate behavior and dress of some students, they said.

School board President Rick Vuocolo said the district is forming a task force to address the issue.

"I have a real sense that next year's graduation will be very different than the last one," Vuocolo said. "The student population has said, 'Enough is enough, we've gone too far.'"

Christine Paterra, a valedictorian who co-wrote the letter, said she could smell marijuana wafting from seats behind her, and watched as students began taking their gowns off while walking across the stage to receive their diplomas.

Paterra said she was embarrassed to learn her neighbors had watched the ceremony on local cable access television.

"A lot of the people outside of my school district have a very negative attitude toward Penn Hills. That just added to it, when a televised event happens like that, it's embarrassing, not only to the school district but to the community in general," said Paterra, 18.

School personnel took away beach balls from the crowd, but Paterra felt they could have done more to keep the students in line.

Paterra and the other students suggested the district require graduates sign a waiver that outlines what behavior is expected of them, and stating that if they don't act accordingly, their diplomas may be withheld.

District spokesman Matt Cummings said the district would consider the students' suggestions. School officials communicate what behavior is expected with students in senior meetings, in the rehearsal ceremony and in letters sent to all graduating seniors.

Cummings said he was at the ceremony on the school's football field and did not see any evidence of drug use. He said police were also there.

The district will work to reform the ceremony, Cummings said.

But he cautioned that student behavior is sometimes unpredictable. Students know what is expected of them, Cummings said, but "minor disruptions or eccentric celebrations cannot always be predicted, avoided, or forcibly controlled without tarnishing the entire ceremony."

School board member Margie Krogh said other graduations have been just as rowdy, but welcomed the chance to clean up the act.

"I've been in some graduations that were a lot rowdier and no one thought twice about it," said Krogh. "Still, I think it reflected on this group of students very well that they wanted to restore a sense of decorum to the graduation."

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