GALESBURG - Five students denied diplomas after cheers erupted when their names were called at a Central Illinois high school graduation came away empty-handed Tuesday after a meeting with school administrators.
Their attorney said afterward that he is sending a letter giving school officials until 5 p.m. Wednesday to apologize and deliver diplomas that were denied when cheers at Galesburg High School's graduation violated a school policy aimed at restoring commencement decorum.
Peoria attorney Jeffrey Green, who volunteered to take the girls' case at no cost, said a lawsuit is possible if school administrators fail to hand over the keepsake diplomas.
"I really hope it doesn't come to that. We're hoping they come to their senses and do the right thing … To me, it seems inherently wrong to take something away from a kid for something they worked four years for and are being denied because people cheered for four seconds,'' Green said.
School officials declined to comment Tuesday about the dispute, which has received national media attention.
Three of the girls and their families met briefly with school officials Tuesday, but they again were denied the diplomas after no one contacted the district to apologize for their actions during the May 27 commencement for 268 graduates.
School officials told students and their parents Friday that they would hand over diplomas if they received apologies - even anonymously.
The students denied the diplomas say school officials wanted them to track down the culprits. They say that is impossible, because they don't know who might have cheered in the crowd of about 2,000 people.
"They are just trying to save face about this,'' said Nadia Trent, one of the five students. "They don't want to just give us the diplomas because that would be like we won and they don't want to tell people that.''
About a month before the May 27 graduation, students and their parents had to sign a contract promising to act in a dignified way. Violators were warned they could be denied their keepsake diplomas and barred from an after-graduation party, but still would officially graduate and receive their high school transcripts.
School officials say the get-tough policy followed complaints after a 2005 commencement where shouts and even air horns drowned out much of the ceremony in this town of about 34,000 people.
The students and their families say the policy weeded out those problems in 2006 and that administrators were nitpicking during last month's graduation.
Some also have accused school officials of targeting students because of their race, saying four of the graduates who were denied diplomas were black and another is mixed race. Cheers also erupted for white students, they contend, but none were denied diplomas.
School officials have denied allegations of racism, saying administrators who monitored the ceremony only reported disruptions they considered significant, and all turned in the same five names.
Students and their parents say they will seek no punitive damages, even if school officials refuse to deliver the diplomas and the case goes to court.
"Nobody wants that. It's not about that,'' said Kelly Mixon, a friend of the families whose son graduated with the five girls.
Honors student Caisha Gayles said she just wants to get her diploma and move on.
"It's just dumb. It's petty,'' Gayles said.
The Illinois State Board of Education staff questions Galesburg's policy because it puts students at risk for circumstances out of their control, agency spokesman Matt Vanover said Tuesday. For example, Vanover said a student's enemies could yell in an effort to yank their diploma.