High school hijinks: Diploma day poses a discipline challenge

After last year's graduation got out of hand, one Massachusetts town adds precautions in 2004.

The graduating class of 2004 may have been sitting patiently through "Pomp and Circumstance," but family and friends lining the football field bleachers were beginning to yawn. Then Safa Alzaim stepped up to the podium and launched into song.

"It's time for Animaniacs," the class salutatorian yelled into the microphone, her high voice echoing across the stadium. "And we're zany to the max. So just sit back and relax. You'll laugh 'til you collapse. We're Animaniacs!"

Her classmates whistled and cheered as parents chuckled at the unexpected salute to a favorite childhood television show. Standing on the perimeter were several police officers, their arms folded, their faces stern as they watched for signs of disobedience.

Pranks and rowdiness were a major hindrance - or highlight, depending on whom you ask - at Braintree High School's graduation ceremony in 2003, and headmaster William Farrington took extra precautions this spring to keep excitement to a murmur as diplomas were handed out.

Across the country, in fact, schools have been pushing for better behavior at graduations, warning parents and students alike that excessive displays of exuberance would result in punishment.

Schools argue that the event is a privilege only the deserving should participate in, while students and parents call the crackdown an overreaction, saying kids will be kids and graduations should be a time of celebration. Though graduation-day pranks are as old as the mortarboard, reports of rowdiness - and the ensuing crackdown - indicate a growing intolerance among school officials for fooling around. For instance:

• At Moss Point High School in Biloxi, Miss., students who were "disruptive" during graduation exercises last spring were assigned 15 hours of community service before they could receive their diplomas.

• Officials at Parker Junior High School in Flossmoor, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, tried to stop parents and friends from "excessively celebrating" this year by threatening to withhold the diplomas (on the night of the ceremony) to any student whose boosters made too much noise.

• When Joana Li, the salutatorian at West Brook High School in Beaumont, Texas, presented a draft of her speech to the principal before their 2003 ceremony, she was prohibited from speaking at all. Her contentious statement, according to one news report:

"Have you noticed that now that you're graduating, everyone has advice to give you? Work hard. Don't forget who you are. Persevere. Remember your priorities. The truth is out there. That's all good and well, but they seem to forget one important thing: Have fun."

Here at Braintree a fence kept parents and graduates apart, and signs posted along it read: "Please refrain from using fog horns, inflated objects, beach balls."

Andy Marcarelli, a junior at Braintree and member of the National Honors Society, doesn't know whether he'll follow the rules next year. But he understands why so many kids decide to break them.

"I know I wouldn't want a boring graduation," he says. "I'd want to have fun. Plus I don't think there's anything they can really do after now. It's not like they're going to see them again."

This year, on the last day of school, "[seniors] weren't even allowed to scream in the halls," says Connie Tran, also a junior, as she hands out programs. She understands wanting the ceremony to run smoothly without too much disruption. But what's wrong, she asks, with a little noise, some funny dance moves, or a beach ball on the crest of the crowd?

But school authorities believe you have to impose some limits or merriment can quickly devolve into mayhem. "The occasional beach ball, the tossing of the caps after it's all over, the kid who does a flip onstage after they get their diploma - yeah, those things you can look at and smile and laugh at as excusable," says Dan Domenech, a former teacher and superintendent in Fairfax County, Va. "Behavior that is rude, that disrupts the ceremony - that is inexcusable because you're ruining it for all the other people. And this is a memorable event. You want to have a positive memory of the event."

Not all pranks become international incidents. Some observers note that many have been passed down over generations and become more traditions than signs of poor behavior. High school kids are "trying to define themselves as individuals and figure out what best way to make a mark on the world," says Don Moore, a communications specialist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Nor are today's antics necessarily any worse than they used to be. John Leahy, a member of Braintree's class of 1975, says kids today are far tamer than when he was growing up. "Kids are happy that school is over," he says, waiting for his daughter Meghan to get her diploma. "They finally get to have some freedom."

Soon after Meghan's name is called and her family cheers, Headmaster Farrington congratulates all the graduates. The students jump to their feet and throw their caps, some of them painted in swirly kaleidoscopes. They turn to wave at friends and family members in the bleachers. Some of the well-wishers pull out fog horns - a signature way to celebrate in this town south of Boston near the coast. Farrington, apparently ignoring his own rules, smiles as the bassoon-like bellows fill the air.

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