By Michael Gagne
SOUTHINGTON — Students seeking to use Saturday’s graduation as a platform to voice support for the Black Lives Matter movement and to make statements regarding the ongoing social unrest that followed the death of George Floyd, were informed by the high school's administration that the event would not be the appropriate forum to do so.
Students floated the possibility of a moment of silence in honor of Floyd, adding a speaker to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement, and discussed holding walkouts related to the movement during graduation.
In an online message sent earlier this week to Southington High School families, principal Frank Pepe responded to those requests “by stating I do not believe graduation is the appropriate venue for such actions.”
“Graduation should be a moment of celebration based on the accomplishments of the graduates. Because of my response, I have been labeled a variety of terms including and not limited to, a white privileged racist,” Pepe wrote.
Pepe then explained to families he offered to help coordinate a peaceful protest separate from graduation, and that he would dedicate his time to support students in a peaceful protest.
“I believe there is a clear need to battle systemic racism and oppression of minority groups within our society. I do not believe the graduation ceremony serves as the appropriate venue. I understand some agree and others disagree with this position,” Pepe wrote.
Pepe added that he was informed by email that a student who would be among the group singing the National Anthem planned to kneel during that performance.
“To honor her freedom of expression, I responded that I would not prevent her from kneeling but respectfully requested if she indeed made this choice, she should also make a statement along the lines that 'to kneel was in no way shape or form a sign of disrespect towards our flag or towards those who have given their life for the freedom it represents,'” Pepe wrote.
School Superintendent Tim Connellan shared a similar description of the dialogue in an email to the Record-Journal.
“The summary of that discussion is that while we can all and should all support working to end discrimination and racism, the graduation ceremony is not the proper forum,” Connellan wrote. “The students were offered the opportunity to hold a voluntary event on campus on the Turf Field, in a safe environment with assistance to ensure all of the restrictions on social gatherings would be accommodated and students could feel free to attend or not as they wished.
“The student who met with administration communicated that she would like to explore that option further and the administration will work with the students on a voluntary opportunity,” he added.
Connellan explained the rationale regarding whether graduation is an appropriate venue for such a statement is similar to the captive audience argument, which has been legally upheld in courts, as a means to limit potentially unwanted speech.
“The fundamental finding of the Supreme Court and in lower Circuit Courts in a variety of related cases is that graduation is a school sponsored activity. Essentially individuals do not have a choice to participate. It is not really fair to those individuals who would otherwise choose not to participate to have a religious experience forced on them, or in this case what can be viewed by some as a political statement,” Connellan wrote. “Public schools are supposed to be neutral in both religion and politics.
“There were some individuals who did not agree with that viewpoint and of course their interpretation was that it was untenable and unkind descriptions of the administration were offered. That is really unfortunate since in Southington, we have moved forward with Social Justice activities for the past two years, sponsored by and initiated by the public schools,” Connellan wrote, noting the Coalition for Social Justice has developed an action plan “designed to educate and to break down some of the barriers we witness in society today.”
The coalition was spawned in the wake of a Southington High School student’s racist tirade in 2018 in which he threatened black students in a video posted on social media.
Pepe added, “I cannot physically prevent her nor others in the audience if they choose to kneel. This does not indicate my agreement with the action as I will be standing because that is my belief.
“I respectfully request that we all provide one another the freedom of expression if some choose to kneel,” Pepe wrote. “I do not want this to detract from the celebration that Graduation is intended to be.”