At bandstand, students take stand against graduation policies

In a decision rich with symbolism, many students from Charlotte Amalie High School stage a protest Thursday at the Emancipation Garden gazebo on St. Thomas, demanding that plans be reinstated for an in-person graduation ceremony. The park, nearly two centuries old, is synonymous with civil rights. Story on page 4

Taking a stand

ST. THOMAS — Charlotte Amalie High School seniors held a protest Thursday, demanding that plans for an in-person graduation be reinstated.

“We were promised an in-person graduation,” said T’Kajrah Wharton, 17.

“We never had a normal year,” said Mi’Kaylah Thomas, 17. “This is the one thing we were excited about.”

Graduation plans territorywide have been embroiled in controversy since principals first announced plans for hybrid ceremonies on May 5 in an online video broadcast.

St. Croix students were upset that St. Thomas had planned sit-down graduation ceremonies, while St. Croix students would have drive-through ceremonies.

Following a protest by St. Croix students Saturday morning, Education Department spokeswoman Cynthia Graham issued a statement Saturday afternoon “in an effort to reinforce and clarify plans.”

The Education Department said all public high schools in the territory would have hybrid graduation ceremonies in a mobile, drive-through or walk-through format.

The students protesting Thursday said the 240-member class was originally going to be split into three 80-person ceremonies. But after the St. Croix protest, the students said they were told they can drive into campus but only one parent can accompany them into the auditorium to receive their diploma, after which they have to return to the car and leave.

“How can you choose a parent?” asked Lianet Ortiz, 17.

Graham said in an email Thursday evening that, “I am not aware of a one-invite per student requirement at the St. Thomas schools. At our May 5 press conference, principals at the two St. Thomas high schools announced that each student would receive two invitations for family members to attend. If the schools have adjusted the invitation distribution since then, I have not been made aware of it.”

There were also reports of a similar protest at Edith Williams Alternative Academy on Thursday, and Graham did not respond to subsequent questions about whether students’ hopes for an in-person ceremony are possible.

Charlotte Amalie’s graduation is set for 1 p.m. May 21, and “many people don’t even want to go to graduation anymore,” said Ortiz.

Starting with the hurricanes of 2017 and ending with the ongoing pandemic, the Class of 2021 has been denied many of the traditional high school experiences, and “we could have all just left” for schools on the mainland, Thomas said.

But graduation was important enough for many students to stay, or even return from being away after the storms, and the students protesting Thursday said they feel more than slighted by the latest events.

“We want to let our voices be heard so they can do better in the future, or make change now,” Wharton said.

“Even if nothing changes, at least we tried,” Ortiz said.

— Contact Suzanne Carlson at 340-714-9122 or email scarlson@dailynews.vi.