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  • Reverend James Squire

The Controversy at Philadelphia School Graduations

People are taking great offense at the fact that Deshawn Walker was not permitted to attend his high school graduation because of a brutal attack on him by Micah Roane. No one knows why he was attacked. Walker seems to be an innocent victim. People are speculating that there were reasons for the attack. A woman student at Girls High School did not receive her diploma as she danced across the stage to receive it which caused laughter by those who attended the graduation. She was warned not to do so before the graduation. The principals in both schools have been the subject to criticism that these were exclusionary practices. I disagree!

Since the press is keeping this story alive let me give you a different perspective on why I think that the principals did the right thing based on my experience as Chaplain at EA for 38 years.

First, regarding the situation of DeShawn Walker. No one to date has discovered why it seemed to be a targeted attack. The school made sure that Walker was provided with tutoring when recovering and would graduate on time. He will attend college in the Fall. Would his attackers, if he were targeted, attempt to get at him again at graduation? Given the proliferation of school shootings, the administration did not want to take a chance on unknown attackers trying again. There is still no reason for the attack. DeShawn is thought to be an innocent victim here, but potential violence at the graduation was unpredictable. Context is important. School shootings have flooded the news and our culture.

One of the situations at EA that got national attention was when the father of one of our students was the brother of someone who had turned on the Philly Mafia. Killing the father was a way to silence the brother who was in prison. My student and his father had a daily routine before heading to school from South Philly. The mob knew this routine and assassinated the father as my student was walking down his front walk.

We allowed the press to meet with our Director of Public Relations in a building on the driveway to our school to answer questions. The press was forbidden to enter campus to talk with students. However, some sneaked onto campus trying to talk with students to get their story. Our students listened to our mandate and they did not speak with the press. The press was relentless. We supported the student who is a great guy much beloved by his peers and faculty.

An ethical dilemma came up. The Mass of Christian Burial for our student’s father was to be held at a church in South Philly. It was a school custom to allow students to attend the services of family members who had died to support a student. Should our students be allowed to attend this service where the victim was a hit from the Mafia. The reason for the hit was clear as well as was the Mafia retaliation. Our parents, like the administrator of DeShawn Walker’s school, were concerned about classmates of my student attending the service for his father.

I thought that the students should go to support the student whose father was murdered. The difference here from Walker’s situation is that the local press made sure than everyone knew that it was the Mafia and the reason for the attack. I called a friend of mine who had contacts within the Philly Mafia and asked his counsel. I will never forget his response. “Rev, that service will be the safest place in America. Mob rule dictates that you never do anything after the fact to the family particularly at a church service.”

To be fair to the parents who strongly criticized me right up to when we left for the city, they were protecting their children in the only way that they knew how. Other parents took my word for it and either allowed us to provide transportation for their children or went with their children to the service. It helped that I was taking my own son with me. It is important to note that the Head of School at the time supported me in what I wanted to do. The difference here is that we knew the perpetrators of the crime and why it was done. More important, my student appreciated the support and was helped by it.

I think that the Principal of Girls High did the right thing for reasons that haven’t been articulated. Graduation is a sacred time. At EA graduation is held in the chapel. We made it very clear that you had to dress in a particular way. The students are inspected by a dean while they were in line before processing in. The students are instructed on how to walk up to get their diploma. (Schools think that action is as important as meeting a president, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Pope). At EA they received a Bible from the Bishop, and diploma from the Board Chair and Head School, and if you were faculty like me, I gave the diploma to my sons.

At that point there is cheering and applause. In fact, one of my sons who was a wrestler picked me up with a hug. Other faculty would embrace and /or kiss their kids. But it was AFTER the walk. (This is a moment to comment on dress codes in independent schools. They aren’t in place to make students look elitist. They are in place to make students aware of the importance of why they are in school, learning. You wouldn’t show up to a prom or important dinner dressed informally so don’t come to school that way either.)

The school controversy in the case of Deshawn Walker, was not exclusionary. It was about safety when the assailant(s) is known and taken into custody but the reason for the attack is not known.

The student who danced to get her diploma was not meant to be excluded because of some outdated rules, it was to underscore the importance of all the learning that she and others did at Girls High. It is interesting that many alumnae of the school supported the principal.

Like marriages, divorces and deaths, sometimes graduations bring out the best and worst in people. We had students who were expelled shortly before graduation. Certain students weren’t expelled but committed a serious infraction of school rules and couldn’t walk for graduation. I gave them their diplomas with their families present in my office. That was bittersweet!

Agree or disagree, you have been getting one side of the story by the press and letters to the editor. The above is something for you to think about as well. Since I believe that no student should be embarrassed in a public way in a classroom or larger gathering, I too have been torn about what happened at Girls High. But I am helped by consequentialism and precedent setting in ethics. What would have happened if the girl who danced across the stage had nothing happen to her and the rest of those that followed did the same thing? Would that have established a moment to honor the act of graduating and the hard work of all of the students?

The principal was concerned about the greatest good for the greatest number of her group which was all of the girls in the graduating class. It is the Utilitarian ethical approach which I support!

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