For most students, graduating from high school or college is a big deal. And going to the commencement ceremony is an important way to celebrate the achievement with their families, fellow students, and teachers. But it’s important to remember the distinction between “walking” at the graduation ceremony and actually graduating—receiving a diploma or degree. They each have different requirements. That means some students who’ve successfully completed all of their coursework and other graduation requirements may find themselves barred from participating in commencement. And others who haven’t quite finished or are following a different academic path may sometimes be able to walk at the ceremony with their peers.
The Right to a Diploma
Courts have generally found that students have a right to a diploma or degree (similar to a property interest) if they’ve earned it academically—usually by successfully finishing the required coursework or credit hours and examinations. Schools can’t deny a diploma to qualified graduates arbitrarily or under rules that aren’t reasonable. So it’s probably not fair for administrators to withhold a high school diploma for last-minute disciplinary problems, if the student successfully finished the academic requirements and sat for final exams. (See, for example, Shuman v. Cumberland Valley School Dist. Bd. of Directors, 536 A.2d 490 (Pa. Commonw. Ct. 1988).)
Graduating Without the Ceremony
Compared to withholding diplomas, school officials have much more leeway when it comes to banning students from graduation ceremonies—which is seen as a privilege rather than a right. Still, the rules should be clear and applied fairly. The school should also have valid reasons for the policies, particularly if they might violate students’ right to freedom of expression.
Graduates may be kept from participating in commencement ceremonies for a variety of reasons, including:
- Disciplinary record. Some high schools require students to have a good citizenship record in order to walk at graduation. Students may also be barred for recent discipline problems, like suspensions during their senior year. Many high schools also have policies that prevent students from participating in any extracurricular activity (including commencement ceremonies) while they’re assigned to a disciplinary alternative education program or an education program in the juvenile justice system.
- Academic or attendance record. Even if students have completed the minimum academic requirements for earning a diploma, schools may not let them participate in commencement if they have too many absences or a low grade point average.
- Dress requirements at graduation. Many schools require graduates to wear a cap and gown when they receive their diplomas, without any alterations or extra adornments. Courts have generally upheld these rules as a function of the school’s legitimate interest in celebrating achievement and showing class unity—even if it means that some students can’t express their religious or cultural identity by wearing traditional ceremonial clothing or religious emblems. (See, for example, Bear v. Fleming, 714 F.Supp.2d 972 (S. S.D. 2010) and Griffith v. Caney Valley Public Schools, 157 F. Supp. 3d 1159 (N.D. Okla. 2016).)
- Behavior during the ceremony. School officials can and do enforce special rules of conduct during graduation ceremonies, including bans on rowdy or just exuberant behavior (from talking too much or cheering to standing on chairs). They also commonly prohibit graduates from bringing items like phones, beach balls, Frisbees, or noisemakers to the event.
- Outstanding financial obligations. For high school students, this usually means unpaid fines for lunch charges, damaged textbooks, or lost locker locks.
Schools should distribute the commencement rules well before graduation day, so that students and their parents can know what to expect and at least have the chance to clear up any problems that will keep them away from the ceremony.
Celebrating Without the Diploma
Some high school students—for reasons outside of their control—may not have earned a traditional diploma by the time their classmates are putting on the cap and gown for graduation. For instance, students with serious disabilities may have an IEP (individualized education program) that provides for continued special education beyond the four years of high school. Some states (such as Texas and Pennsylvania) allow these special ed students to take part in commencement ceremonies with their friends and peers. Under New York’s law, which took effect in December 2017, students with disabilities can participate as long as they’ve received a commencement credential, which acknowledges that the student has the skills needed for entry-level employment (N.Y. Educ. Law §4402(9) (2018)).
Also, local school districts may have policies that accommodate students who’ve been seriously ill or had another major hardship, to allow them to participate in commencement even when they’re a few credits short of graduation requirements.
Questions For Your Attorney
- The commencement dress code at my daughter’s school says that all girls have to wear a dress or skirt under their graduation gown. She insisted on wearing pants under her gown (like all the boys), so the principal kicked her out of the ceremony. Isn’t that sex-based discrimination?
- Our transgender child’s school requires caps and gowns in a different color for boys and girls. Our child, who identifies as male, wants to wear the boy’s robe, but school officials say he can’t. Can they keep him from the ceremony for that reason?
- School officials informed me that my child isn’t allowed to go to graduation because of a few old in-school suspensions that I didn’t even know about. Can you help us appeal that decision?
- The principal at my child’s school has just announced that no students could go to graduation if there was evidence that they drank or took drugs on prom night. But that’s not part of the school district’s commencement policies. Can the principal just impose that rule at the last minute?