By Matt Wiley
Graduation ceremonies can be pretty similar to one another. The principal gives a welcome address, followed by either the salutatorian and valedictorian or vice-versa, before the graduating students cross the stage to collect their diplomas.
However, on June 3, during the graduation ceremony for New Tampa’s Paul R. Wharton High, something peculiar happened: the salutatorian’s microphone was turned off before the honoree had finished delivering his speech, and the reasons for doing so are still not completely clear.
Harold Shaw, Jr., a 17-year-old prospective University of Florida (UF) film student, approached the podium as Wharton’s salutatorian with a 7.31 GPA and began his speech. Before beginning, he removed his cap. The version of the speech that Shaw began to deliver to the crowd of classmates and their families inside the expo center at the Florida State Fairgrounds was the third draft he had been instructed to write and submit to the school for approval.
“Today begins a journey of self exploration and endless opportunities,” Shaw said in his speech. “Do not forget the power of creativity.”
However, a few minutes into the speech, Woods stood up and made a gesture to turn off Shaw’s microphone, which then went silent. Woods then approached a second podium, thanked Harold, told the crowd that Wharton High respects individuals’ freedom of speech, but that there is a time and place for everything and invited valedictorian Allyson Bell to the podium to deliver her speech.
“I got about two and a half pages into my speech and then I stumbled,” explains Shaw. “I said, ‘just do what it takes,’ and that was enough for (Woods) to cut me off. I thought it was a technical difficulty or something that had happened. It seems ridiculous because I was going by the approved speech the whole time.”
After walking the stage, Shaw’s attorney Tom Parnell, Esq., of Gibbs & Parnell, explains that no diploma was waiting for Shaw in the room where students were instructed to pick them up. Shaw says that he was instructed to talk to Woods, but while trying to do so, he was instead escorted out of the building by Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) deputies and had to pick up his diploma at the school two days later.
“(Woods) said into a walkie-talkie that I was harassing him,” Shaw says.
But, this was not the first confrontation between the two.
Prior to graduation, Shaw had posted a video on Youtube.com that he had made, entitled “Welcome To Wharton High School,” which drew attention to the school’s restroom conditions, even giving the email addresses for Woods and Hillsborough County School District (HCSD) superintendent MaryEllen Elia at the end, urging viewers to voice their concerns to the officials.
Shaw says he was called down to the principal’s office the Friday before graduation. “(Woods) basically implied that I had to take (the video) down in order to make my speech,” Shaw says. The video has since been re-uploaded to Youtube.
Parnell explains that the first two drafts of Shaw’s speech included references to the sanitation video, but that the third version was approved by Woods and the School Board and his script was waiting for him on the podium.
“The School Board (first) told me that (the speech being cut short) was due to time constraints, but that doesn’t make sense because the speech was approved (at its full length),” Shaw says.
“Instead of what could have been one of the best days of his young life, he goes through that humiliation,” Parnell says. “He didn’t even get to take pictures with his friends. We haven’t made a final decision, but I think there is a case here.”
Parnell says that the three requirements that must be proven in a free speech case include a speech that poses a threat of disruption, that the speech is offensive to community standards or that the speech is contrary to the mission of the school.
“But here, none of those (conditions) were met,” Parnell says.
Parnell says that the reasons that HCSD has given for the incident have changed more than once since the graduation ceremony. Shaw originally was told that he was cut off due to time constraints, was changed into him going off topic and changed again to being because the salutatorian removed his graduation cap before beginning his speech.
HCSD spokesman Stephen Hegarty says that students are discouraged from removing their graduation caps during the ceremonies, even at the end of them.
During the June 11 HCSD School Board meeting, in her closing comments, Superintendent Elia expressed her thoughts on the situation.
“When a student decides to break the rules, or challenge the rules, and is surprised by the consequences, I’m surprised,” Elia said. “Mr. Woods had a very good reason to be wary of the salutatorian’s speech. He had gone to great lengths to make sure that the student and his mother understood the expectations at graduation.”
Elia said that the last thing that Woods said to Shaw at the graduation ceremony was to give him a call so that they could talk about what happened when Shaw came in to pick up his diploma. Elia said that Shaw did not attempt to speak with Woods when he went to pick up his diploma, even though Woods was present.
Hegarty says that Shaw still has not reached out to Woods.
“Our expectations of teachers and principals are high,” Elia explained. “They’re held accountable every day. I certainly intend to support them, as I intend to support students. But, when students do something that they have been warned not to do, and they do it anyway, they have to be held accountable. I think that was the appropriate thing that was done.”
Calls to principal Woods for comment were not returned.
What is your opinion on this issue? Check out the script of Shaw’s approved speech and the Youtube.com video and let us know what you think.