Updated at 12:20 p.m. – Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School (B-CC) seniors graduated Wednesday morning amid a lingering controversy over Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers’ decision to allow six students to take part in the ceremony.
The decision, which was announced last week and opposed almost immediately by teachers and some parents, came after Principal Donna Redmond Jones had banned the students from taking part because they were allegedly drunk at the school’s prom in early May.
Bowers didn’t attend the graduation ceremony at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., MCPS spokesperson Derek Turner confirmed.
“Interim Superintendent Bowers wants the focus to be on celebrating the wonderful students of B-CC and not to distract from that,” Turner said Wednesday.
Jones got a standing ovation from some parents upon taking the podium to make her speech.
Some parents and staff members spoke of wearing red ribbons, a symbol of the Mothers Against Drunk Driving organization, to the ceremony as a form of protest. Many sent emails to Bowers and Board of Education members expressing their opposition to the reversal.
Jones sent a letter to members of the school community Tuesday in which she said she didn’t want the controversy to detract from the graduation ceremony.
“As we move forward, we can now turn our energies towards engaging in deeper conversations about the policies and preventative measures that can be implemented across our district to address the problem of alcohol and substance use connected to school-sponsored events,” Jones wrote.
The school’s PTSA is set to discuss the matter at a Thursday meeting.
Jones, the school’s first-year principal, instituted the rule that any student who showed up drunk or was found drinking at the May 6 prom wouldn’t be allowed to receive his or her diploma at the school’s graduation ceremony.
The rule was reinforced at multiple meetings with seniors and parents throughout the year. It was also written into the official prom sign-up form.
But on Friday, Bowers wrote a letter to families of seniors at the school saying that while he doesn’t condone underage drinking, creating a blanket policy to ban all students caught drinking at prom from graduation ceremonies goes against Board of Education policy.
“The Board of Education policy is clear that, as a matter of general practice, the exclusion from commencement ceremonies may not be included in local school policies regarding disciplinary standards and procedures,” Bowers wrote. “However, principals retain the authority to exclude students from participation in commencement ceremonies for cause, on a case-by-case basis.”
Bowers said that he met with the students and determined they “received appropriate consequences under our discipline policy,” and should be allowed to take part in the graduation ceremony.
Some high school principals in MCPS are known to warn seniors they won’t be allowed to walk across the stage at graduation if they’re caught drinking at prom. It’s unclear how many enforced the rule this year or if there were other formal appeals, because the school system doesn’t comment on disciplinary infractions.
MCPS spokesperson Brian Edwards did not say when asked Friday whether there were additional appeals filed by students from other schools who were told they would not walk at graduation because they were caught drinking at prom.
"There are appeals made throughout the entire graduation season and decisions are made to uphold and decisions are made to overturn all the time," he said.
Edwards noted that Bowers’ decision was in line with current education reform by states that are moving away from zero-tolerance discipline policies.
“Schools can’t do blanket zero-tolerance policies,” he said. “So it has to be applied on a case-by-case basis.”
Edwards said the reversal in the B-CC case doesn’t mean principals can no longer warn students they won’t be allowed to participate in activities if they are caught drinking.
"Typically discipline falls within close proximity to when events occurred so when Mr. Bowers looked at all the facts in the case in the appeal, he thought the basic policy in practice needed to be overturned," he said. "Students can be excluded from activities in the future for using alcohol."
Several sources said the six B-CC High School seniors were suspended for their actions at prom.
Bowers attended a meeting at the school Thursday with senior staff and members of the administration to discuss his decision, according to staff members who spoke to Bethesda Beat on the condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to discuss the issue.
The sources said staff members in the room openly criticized Bowers’ decision to allow the seniors to attend graduation but he stood by the ruling.
About 40 staff members who disagreed with Bowers’ ruling held a meeting during lunch Friday to discuss the situation and potential next steps. On Tuesday, staff members showed their support for Jones by sending flowers to the school’s main office.
Bowers’ reversal was widely seen by B-CC staff and parents as undermining the principal’s authority. Edwards said, “it’s unfortunate that message was mistakenly taken from this incident.”
“No one is more concerned about underage drinking than Mr. Bowers is and MCPS stands with Dr. Redmond Jones in addressing this issue in the B-CC community, which is not a new issue, and we commend Dr. Redmond Jones for the really Herculean efforts she’s done there to try and help address the culture. This is not new and it’s not limited to this school. It is incumbent on all of us adults to make sure we clarify those messages to the students of what kind of behavior is and isn’t acceptable," Edwards said.
Julie Rasicot contributed to this report