Avoid Graduation-Related Legal Disputes

High school graduation season is fast approaching. Because of the emotional and social significance at­tached to this important milestone, school officials should be prepared to prevent and resolve legal dis­putes. Appropriate policies and a general understanding of the applicable legal standard can guide school officials through graduation-related challenges.

Diplomas and "Walking"

School officials should not deny diplomas as a means of disciplining students who have completed all requisite coursework and final examinations. The end of the school year may usher in senior pranks, and school administrators may want to deny a diploma as a way to discipline seniors. Courts, however, have held that withholding a diploma deprives an individual of a constitutionally protected property interest. Courts in other states have held that even a student who finishes all of the graduation requirements while awaiting an expulsion hearing may be entitled to a diploma.

While students generally have a right to a diploma upon completion of graduation requirements, there is no constitutional right to receive that diploma at the graduation ceremony. Students have no protected property right to participate in or “walk” at gradua­tion. Similar to participation in prom and extra-curricular activities, walking across the graduation stage is a privilege, not a right.

School policy should dictate whether students who have not completed graduation requirements may participate in graduation ceremonies. If student discipline is required at the end of the school year, school officials have the discretion to revoke a stu­dent’s privilege of walking at graduation. Schools can mitigate backlash on these issues by including a grad­uation participation policy in the student code of conduct or by providing written notice of the policy to students and their parents as early as possible (e.g., in the student handbook at the start of the school year).

Cap and Gown

A school can establish and enforce a non-discriminatory dress code policy for graduation. Courts have held that students must abide by pub­lished dress code requirements of a cap and gown and, in one case, a “no jeans” policy, to attend the graduation ceremony. Refusal to comply with the published dress code can justify excluding a student from the graduation ceremony.

As reported in last month’s edition of School Law Notes, a federal court recently upheld a school’s grad­uation dress code that prohibited students from wearing decorations on their graduation caps. The policy survived the student’s First Amendment chal­lenge because the policy was reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns (i.e., unity, discipline, and respect for authority), and school officials applied the policy in a neutral, nondiscriminatory manner without targeting a particular group or religion.

Prayer

Public schools cannot mandate or organize prayer at graduation ceremonies because such an act would appear to the public to be an endorsement of religion, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. When a school official selects a clergy member or student for the purpose of giving a gradua­tion invocation, the result is an unlawful school-sponsored prayer. The U.S. Supreme Court has specifically held that a clergy-led graduation invoca­tion is school-sponsored prayer that violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Even if the prayer is “nonsectarian,” or nondenominational, school-sponsored prayer will violate the Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court has also declared unconstitu­tional a school’s process of letting the students pick another student to lead an organized prayer at school-sponsored events.

Individual students may attempt to include religious content in their gradua­tion speeches. Student speech that is part of a school-sponsored event may bear the imprimatur of the school. Nevertheless, some fed­eral courts have permitted graduation prayer that is voluntarily initiated by the student without any school policy encouraging prayer. Other courts have held that censoring religious-themed content from a student's graduation speech may violate the student's First Amendment rights. This is an area of the law that is not always clear and requires a fact-specific analysis of each situation. School officials should provide stu­dents with appropriate guidelines and include a dis­claimer statement in the graduation program that the views expressed by student speakers do not necessarily represent the views of the school.

School officials who know and follow the appropriate policies are better equipped to avoid legal challenges related to graduation.