Pay up or miss commencement

EDUCATION. Local school administrators report that although policies say students with unpaid fines cannot take part in graduation, the policies are rarely upheld.

Newton /
| 08 Jun 2024 | 09:19

At the end of each school year, schools are left with missing materials, unpaid lunch accounts and late library book fees.

For underclassmen, this isn’t typically an issue. They can put extra money in their lunch fund next year or look for their missing library book during the summer.

But outstanding fines could stop seniors from celebrating the culmination of their high school careers by walking across the stage at graduation.

Numerous schools in the tri-state area have policies that require graduating students to repay all outstanding fines before they can participate in the commencement ceremony.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, students in grades K-12 received free or reduced-price school lunches to help families compensate for lack of income.

As COVID concerns lessened and parents were able to go back to work, the free lunch program was retired. Today, the majority of outstanding debts are school lunch fees.

“Everybody walks”

Policies regarding graduation differ slightly by school, and some parents have taken to Facebook to create collection funds to pay off the lunch debts of seniors, allowing them to walk at their graduation.

One of these parents, Shannon Fisher, became aware of this policy last year, when her daughter’s friend was at risk of not being able to walk at Delaware Valley (Pa.) High School’s graduation. He owed $24 in lunch debt.

Fisher created a GoFundMe campaign called Everybody Walks, which aimed to clear the lunch debt of all Delaware Valley graduating seniors.

“You have kids that you’re threatening to not be able to walk because they owe lunch money,” Fisher said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. They earned that walk. You’re holding this experience hostage for $24.”

She took her frustrations to Facebook, and parents from other school districts echoed them, proving to her that this isn’t an isolated incident. Parents reached out to Fisher with stories from 10 years ago, in which their children’s schools prohibited them from walking until their debts were repaid.

“Historically, this was not new,” she said.

The campaign raised $1,780 from 46 donations, which cleared the nearly $1,200 worth of existing senior lunch debt, according to Fisher. The surplus funds were used to cover other outstanding fees, such as for library books.

‘Can’t just eat that money’

Although these policies are in place at many schools, administrators say they don’t often prevent students from celebrating their graduation.

Principals and administrators said that the policies are necessary to ensure that schools aren’t losing money, but generally, students are allowed to walk at graduation regardless of unpaid fines.

“In my 10 years of being a high school administrator, I’ve never seen a kid not be able to walk because of fines,” Delaware Valley High School Principal Louis DeLauro said. “Ninety-nine percent of the materials we are looking for are found.”

In addition to missing materials, he said that the cafeteria was owed more than $20,000 this year. The school “can’t just eat that money,” so it’s important that fines are repaid, even though they are unlikely to prevent students from walking across the stage at graduation, he said.

Jeffery Waldron, principal of Newton High School, said that while his school does have this policy, it has never been enforced.

The school puts together a senior debt list, consisting of missing items and unpaid fees with the expectation that seniors will repay their debts. If they don’t, they will be prohibited from walking at graduation.

“A grand total of zero students have never walked,” Waldron said.

Vernon Township High School Principal Lindsay LeDuc Young said all graduating seniors are allowed to walk at their graduation, but it makes it more difficult for students to get their diplomas if they have outstanding fees.

“I’ve never ever had a kid not walk because of a fine.” she said. “We always figure things out. There are processes and policies that we have to do.”

Alternative approaches

Chester School District Superintendent Catherine O’Hara said Chester Academy works to enable each student to participate in graduation.

“We prioritize ensuring that all students have the opportunity to participate in their graduation ceremony,” she said. “Chester Academy uses a system for collecting missing materials that involves direct contact from teachers to parents about outstanding debts. Bigger issues involve direct contact between administrators and parents. Using this system, Chester Academy has avoided denying any students the privilege of walking in their graduation ceremony in recent years.”

Fisher has different ideas about how schools can repay their debts without punishing students.

Her first suggestion is one that some districts have employed: Allowing students to walk but withholding their diplomas until their debts are paid.

She also suggested creating a plan for families to repay large debts in smaller amounts over a longer period of time.

In addition, she recommended that schools work with the school café app to make donations available online.

Some schools allow seniors to walk at their graduation regardless of unpaid fees.

A representative of Kittatinny Regional High School in Newton said that as long as students have completed the necessary requirements, they are allowed to walk across the stage at graduation and receive their diplomas with the rest of the class.

Lisamarie Spindler, superintendent of Florida School District in New York, said S.S. Seward Institute students should be able to enjoy and participate in their graduation regardless of what they may owe the school.

“Graduation is a momentous occasion to be celebrated and not tied to a fine,” Spindler said.

Fisher agrees: Graduation is a once-in-a-lifetime celebration that students deserve to enjoy despite their financial status.

She recognizes the necessity of the policies but argues that they are not as effective or productive as they could be.

“I don’t negate the intent of it. They’re not wrong,” Fisher added. “But I think there’s a better way to do this that doesn’t punish the kid for the financial limitations of the family.”