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Graduation no-no's (May 2013 School Leader Update)

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Top Five graduation don’ts

  1. Don’t allow sponsored prayer at commencement.
    School districts cannot sponsor prayer at graduation regardless of the form of delivery. This includes the school choir singing a hymn that includes religious references. This does not mean that the school is going to get in trouble if a student speaker spontaneously begins to pray during the middle of his or her commencement speech. As long as school officials do not have prior knowledge of the student’s intent to pray, it is not considered school-sponsored. The district should take affirmative steps to inform all speakers that prayer at a public school graduation is not legal. If, given the district’s prior knowledge of the speaker, it is not unreasonable to assume that the speaker may offer a prayer, the district has an obligation to pre-screen the content of the planned speech.
  2. Don’t charge fees on these.
    Diplomas. Schools cannot charge a fee for a diploma if earned. The district must provide a diploma. School districts can charge a fee for graduation cap, gown, tassel, and a diploma cover – as long as the purchase is voluntary; state law does not regulate this.  
    Senior Trip. If a school district still schedules a senior trip as part of the 175 instructional days, the presumption is that the trip is curricular in nature, and thus, the district cannot charge a fee. See Declaratory (upheld by district court) Book 25 Decision 62.
  3. Don’t withhold diplomas for failure to pay.
    School boards cannot withhold diplomas for failure to pay fines, fees, etc. A student who has met graduation requirements has an undisputed right to receive his/her diploma. To withhold a diploma for non-academic reasons is tantamount to academic fraud. Having said that, the student does not have an undisputed right to receive the diploma at a commencement ceremony.  If the student has committed some egregious misbehavior, the student may be properly banned from taking part in graduation exercises, and the diploma can be mailed to the student.
  4. Don’t use a breathalyzer or search students without reasonable suspicion.
    Iowa law prohibits searches of students without reasonable suspicion. So, in order for a school district to search a student, including use of a breathalyzer, the employee administering it must have a reasonable suspicion that the specific student has violated school rules. The suspicion has to be individualized to a student. There is no broad authority to search a group of students unless there is reasonable suspicion that they have all violated school rules.
  5. Don’t sponsor a baccalaureate, or religious service.
    A school district cannot sponsor a baccalaureate; this is an event that must be left to the local churches or similar organizations. Students cannot be required to participate in a baccalaureate ceremony nor punished for failure to do so. Prayers and religious songs are unrestricted at a properly sponsored baccalaureate.

Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on April 17, 2014 at 3:53am.