Schools have wide latitude in barring students from high school graduation ceremonies

By Steve Adams

When enforcing student discipline policies school officials will sometimes suspend high school seniors and bar them from participating in graduation ceremonies.

A student facing a suspension has the right to appeal to the Rhode Island Commissioner of Education to request a modification of the suspension, including permission to join his or her classmates at graduation.

As a general rule, the commissioner will defer to a school’s discretion in disciplining students. In the Matter of A.B., June 2, 2000. (“Commissioner accords great weight to the reasoned discretion of school officials when they exercise discretion in the cases that come before them.”)

The commissioner will generally uphold a suspension as long as it is not arbitrary, unreasonable, or disproportionate for the offense.

Having said that, school officials must always exercise discretion when imposing school penalties, meaning they cannot rigidly enforce student discipline rules absent a reasoned explanation: “[W]hen school officials abdicate their discretion and take shelter behind inflexible rules they deprive the Commissioner of the opportunity to show proper respect for a discretion which they have failed to exercise.” John B.L. Doe v. A Rhode Island School Committee, June 13, 1995.

In one case, the commissioner overrode a school’s decision to ban a student from the graduation ceremony based on marijuana possession on school grounds in October of her senior year. The student was suspended from school for the remainder of the year (coursework was provided off campus), including a ban from all senior-class activities.

While the commissioner’s office upheld the suspension, it allowed the student to participate in the graduation ceremony. The commissioner found that the school’s zero-tolerance policy was too rigid because it did not permit the “reasoned discretion” needed when imposing school discipline. F. Doe v. Johnston School Committee (May 6, 2005, No. 0019-05).

The commissioner has upheld graduation ceremony bans for:

  • Entering school grounds while under the influence of marijuana just prior to departing for a senior trip (In the Matter of Four Rhode Island Students (June 9, 2006, No. 0019-06)
  • Being under the influence of alcohol at a school-sponsored event (A.C. Doe v. Coventry School Committee, June 15, 2005, No. 0031 -05); (Student D v. Rhode Island School Committee, June 11, 2004, No. 0015-04); (Jane E. Doe v. North Kingstown School Committee, June 13, 1989, No. 0017-89)
  • Intentionally starting a fire in a gym locker (Student E. Doe v. Burrillville School Committee, June 12, 2008, No. 0013-08)
  • Misbehaving on return plane flight from senior trip (F. Doe v. New England Laborers’ and Cranston Public Schools Career Construction Academy, June 11, 2009, No. 0012-09)
  • Repeat offender for driving recklessly on or near school grounds (In the Matter of Student Michael T., June 7, 2002, No. 0022-02)

In practice, when confronted with student misbehavior that might warrant a ban from participating in a graduation ceremony, school officials should weigh: (i) the nature of the offense; (ii) whether the conduct violates specific student discipline policies; (iii) the importance of the school policy at issue; and (iv) whether the student is a repeat offender.

Short of banning a senior from a graduation ceremony, an option is to allow the student to participate in the ceremony but provide a blank diploma. The school can withhold the official diploma until the student completes community service. (See In the Matter of Four Rhode Island Students, June 9, 2006, No. 0019-06.)

Steve is administrative partner in the Providence office of Barton Gilman, where he focuses his practice on advising education institutions and handling a wide range of civil litigation matters.