SoCal high schools work to ensure safe, ‘celebratory’ graduations amid college turmoil over Gaza

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‘We want these events to be special and meaningful for our community,’ says one school spokesperson

With graduation season in full swing across Southern California, public school officials are confident that high school commencement ceremonies will not be disrupted by the kind of student activism that has flared at college campuses throughout the nation over the Israel-Gaza war.

Educators say that although they have not seen student-led demonstrations at their high schools, they still are prioritizing safety — and maintaining the “celebratory” environment — at upcoming commencement events, when thousands of graduates in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties will receive their diplomas.

“Safety, it’s always our top priority, especially at events such as graduation,” said Hilda Ramirez Horvath, a spokesperson for the Pasadena Unified School District. “Graduations are always a really important milestone for students and their families, and we want these events to be special and meaningful for our community.”

Horvath said the district will take general safety precautions — with support from the Pasadena Police Department and venue security — at its six ticketed graduation ceremonies planned at Pasadena’s Civic Auditorium, starting with Blair High School’s commencement at 11 a.m. Thursday, May 30. But, she quickly added, those measures are “not related to the idea of any protest.”

Similarly, Temecula Valley Unified is “not aware of any incidents or info related to either side of this issue on our campuses,” spokesperson James Evans said, but he noted that security measures will be in place as they routinely are at large campus events.

“As always, safety and security is our number one priority,” said Evans, noting that the district’s graduations are scheduled for June 6 and 7.

In the Long Beach Unified School District, which will hold its graduation ceremonies in June, spokesperson Elvia Cano said, “We remain confident in our safety preparedness for a successful graduation season.”

The Orange Unified School District, which will have its commencement events June 5 and 6 at Fred Kelly Stadium, is making  preparations “to ensure a safe and memorable experience for our graduates and all attendees,” spokesperson Hana Brake said.

Other Orange County districts, including Newport Mesa Unified, Garden Grove Unified, Santa Ana Unified and Irvine Unified, echoed similar sentiments for upcoming late May and June graduations. Officials said they haven’t seen protest activity on high school campuses, and schools have established safety protocols in place to ensure a smooth graduation.

“We do not have any indication that protests will occur during graduation ceremonies,” Irvine Unified spokesperson Annie Brown said. “As with any IUSD-related event or activity, our priority is the safety and well-being of our students, staff and families.”

And in the Jurupa Unified School District, where graduations for its four high schools already are underway, spokesperson Jacqueline Paul said, “Everything is going well.”

School district officials throughout the region are mindful that their graduating seniors have been exposed to widespread media coverage of pro-Palestinian campus protests at universities for more than a month. Locally, UCLA, USC, UC Irvine, Cal State L.A., Chapman University and Pomona College have been hotbeds of student activism.

And, recently, some graduates have walked out of commencement ceremonies nationally — notably, at Harvard, Yale, Tufts and George Washington University — and others at Morehouse College turned their backs on President Joe Biden during his address to highlight their support of a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and divestiture of its financial support for Israel.

Columbia University, ground zero for the pro-Palestinian campus protests, canceled its main commencement, as did USC, which pivoted to smaller ceremonies for individual schools after tensions boiled over partly because of the cancelation of a speech by Muslim valedictorian Asna Tabassum, a Chino Hills resident.

Whether graduating high school seniors in Southern California feel empowered to emulate their college counterparts, of course, is unknown, but public secondary schools operate under slightly more restrictive free expression rights.

High schoolers are limited partly because public schools mandate attendance up to a certain grade level, while going to college is voluntary, said Aaron Terr, director of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which defends and promotes free speech on school campuses. Additionally, he said, teachers and administrators, working under strict district guidelines, stand in the place of parents to some extent while students are at school.

Still, Terr said, public schools cannot punish students for free speech just because “it expresses a view that makes students or administrators uncomfortable.”

Student speech on public secondary school campuses, the Supreme Court has ruled, is protected unless it substantially disrupts or interferes with school operations. That standard emerged from a high court decision in 1969, Tinker v. Des Moines, that affirmed public school students’ First Amendment right to wear black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War.

“Students don’t shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate,” the justices wrote, affirming the right to the armband protest because it was quiet and passive, and did not interfere with other students’ learning environment.

“The following year, millions of college and high school students around the country participated in walkouts to protest the United States’ escalation of the Vietnam War and, soon after, the Kent State shooting,” Terr said. “Like the current campus protests, they were a mix of peaceful protest, civil disobedience, and violence or lawlessness.”

Terr also recalled the 2018 walkout of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, to protest gun violence in the wake of the shooting that killed 14 students and three staff members, and injured others.

That demonstration, he said, is “another historical precedent” for the current student-led, pro-Palestinian protests.

Public school districts say they are mindful of the need to balance student rights to free expression with the desire to avoid disruptions at school events, such as commencement exercises.

“We strive to allow students the opportunity to express their viewpoints in a way that is consistent with maintaining safe and welcoming environments,” said Los Angeles Unified School District spokesperson Rebekah Salgado.

LAUSD — which this year has 116,507 students in grades 9 through 12, including thousands of graduates — has specific plans in place to “ensure that graduations are safe and welcoming events,” Salgado said, noting that commencement ceremonies begin in early June.

At all events, she said in an email, the district will welcome students’ voices “amplified and supported as appropriate to the ceremony. We support each school on a case-by-case basis, factoring in several elements such as size of the graduation, venue, etc.”

In the Torrance Unified School District, activities at commencement ceremonies must abide by the district’s policy on civility, which maintains that “all speech and expression will comport with norms of civil behavior,” spokesperson Sara Myers said by email.

About 2,000 seniors will be graduating from the district’s four high schools the week of June 10, and Myers said commencement events will have “well-communicated rules and security protocols” to help manage crowds.

“We recognize the effect that global events and tragedies can have on our students, so we have continued to work as a community to support each other and promote wellness, safety and kindness during these trying times,” Myers said.

Torrance schools, she said, have hosted multicultural events that celebrate all backgrounds, customs and traditions, and they welcome that spirit of diversity at school events.

Similarly, Pasadena Unified’s Horvath said, “As far as protests, our position is always that the best place for students to talk about concerns or issues is in school with teachers and staff. We actively encourage dialogue and campus activities where all opinions are respected in both words and actions. And so we have structures for that to happen.”

One high school senior who participated in an off-campus, pro-Palestinian protest in Redlands said she hopes to see more activism from secondary school students in her community and beyond.

“I feel like our voices are always the most important because we have staff members, adults and community members looking at us, and we’re the next generation, so it means even more,” said Bayan Yousef, a member of a student-led group called Redlands for Palestine. “Sometimes, because we’re young, we get more attention on the cause when we do it, too.”

Yousef, who plans to attend community college, acknowledged that those who protested with her in early May at Sylvan Park were concerned about retaliation from school officials or college admissions offices. But compared to what’s happening in Gaza, she said, that seems unimportant.

“I was a little worried that they were going to take our graduation away for protesting, and some people were worried their university acceptance letters would be revoked,” she said, “but it doesn’t stop us, of course.”

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