EAST LANSING: 517.484.8000 | NOVI: 248.533.0741 | WEST MICHIGAN: 616.588.7700
Graduation Season is Here!
With high school graduation fast approaching, school officials should be aware of the following graduation-related legal issues.
Diplomas and “Walking” at Graduation
The end of the school year may usher in “senioritis” along with senior pranks, tempting school officials to withhold a student’s diploma as a disciplinary action. School officials who do so risk legal exposure because withholding an earned diploma deprives an individual of a constitutionally protected property interest. In fact, some courts have ruled that a student who is awaiting an expulsion hearing, but has completed the graduation requirements, may still 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. Further, students have no right to participate in or “walk” at the graduation ceremony. Like participation in prom and extra-curricular activities, walking across the graduation stage is a privilege.
If student misconduct results in discipline at the end of the school year, school officials have the discretion to revoke a student’s privilege to walk at graduation. To avoid backlash from students and parents, school officials should include a graduation participation policy in the student code of conduct or provide 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). That policy should also address whether students who have not timely completed graduation requirements may participate in graduation ceremonies in anticipation of earning a diploma. Thrun Policy Service clients should review Policy 5410 to ensure their graduation ceremony practices comply with board policy.
Student Names on Programs and Diplomas
If there are transgender students in the graduating class who use a preferred name, double-check that commencement ceremony programs include the preferred name. Students may also have their preferred name displayed on their high school diploma, as this is a symbolic document.
Cap and Gown
A school can establish and enforce a nondiscriminatory dress code for graduation if the dress code relates to legitimate pedagogical interests. Courts have held that students must abide by published cap and gown requirements and, in one case, a “no jeans” policy, to attend the graduation ceremony. One court also upheld a dress code prohibiting decorated graduation caps. Refusal to comply with a published non-discriminatory dress code can justify excluding a student from the graduation ceremony.
Some schools provide separate gown colors for male and female students. We recommend allowing students to wear gown colors consistent with their gender identity or allowing all students to choose between two colors. Arbitrary dress code distinctions based on gender are frequently targeted in sex discrimination lawsuits.
Public schools cannot mandate or organize prayer at graduation ceremonies due to the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The U.S. Supreme Court has specifically held that a clergy-led graduation invocation is unconstitutional school-sponsored prayer. The Supreme Court has also declared unconstitutional a school’s policy of allowing students to select one of their classmates to lead an organized prayer at school-sponsored events.
Individual students may attempt to incorporate religious content into valedictory or other graduation speeches. Censoring religious-themed content from a student’s graduation speech may violate the student’s First Amendment free speech rights. When confronting this issue, some courts have held that graduation prayer voluntarily initiated by a student without any school policy encouraging or organizing prayer is permissible and does not violate the Establishment Clause.
School officials should provide students with appropriate guidelines for the ceremony and include a disclaimer statement in the graduation ceremony program that the views expressed by student speakers do not necessarily represent the school’s views. Being familiar with these graduation-related legal issues will help ensure a smooth finish to your school year.