The commencement ceremony last month for Senatobia High School, its graduating seniors dressed smartly in blue gowns, scarcely seemed like an event that would provoke multiple allegations of criminal conduct.
But at least three people are facing charges and the prospect of $500 fines and six-month jail terms after they were accused of cheering during the graduation ceremony, held at Northwest Mississippi Community College on May 21.
“We were instructed to remove anyone that cheered during the ceremony, which was done,” Zabe Davis, the chief of the campus police and a Senatobia High alumnus, said Wednesday. “And then Jay Foster, the superintendent, came and pressed charges against those people.”
The misdemeanor charges of disturbing the peace have pushed the residents of Senatobia, population about 8,000, into a discussion about order, gentility and appropriate punishment, all focused on the annual rites of finishing high school. Indeed, the Senatobia authorities are not the first in the United States to pursue charges in the wake of an outburst at a graduation ceremony, but such prosecutions are rare.
(There were news accounts, for example, of one in South Carolina in 2012).
In an affidavit filed in Tate County Justice Court last month, one woman, Ursula Miller, was charged for “yelling and clapping while inside the building after announcement had been made for all to hold their applause and celebrating until after the end of the ceremony.”
Her “loud, boisterous noise,” the affidavit said, was “against the peace and dignity of the State of Mississippi.”
“That was a graduation ceremony,” said Ms. Miller, who said she knew any disruption could lead to her ejection from the graduation of her niece, Lakaydrian Jackson. “That’s what you do. You celebrate. The only thing I said was ‘Lakaydrian.’ ”
Others said that, whether inappropriate or not, an expression of pride and affection should hardly merit criminal charges or a stiff punishment.
Henry Walker, whose shout of “You did it, baby!” toward a relative prompted a charge against him, told WREG-TV, a Memphis station, that his prosecution was “ridiculous.”
“It’s crazy to think that I might have to bond out of jail or pay court costs or a $500 fine for expressing my love,” Mr. Walker said.
Mr. Foster, the superintendent of the city’s school district, did not respond to a message seeking comment. But others here said the graduation events deserved a measure of decorum.
“It ought to be a sacred ceremony,” said Buck Moore, a former member of Senatobia’s school board. “It’s a milestone in a graduate’s life.”
“You don’t have to stand up and be loud and boisterous about how my son or daughter is graduating,” he added. “Wait until it’s over and give them a hug or a kiss.”
But Patrick Alexander, a nonprofit executive who attended the ceremony, said the charges were excessive.
“If they had said, ‘Hey, if anybody celebrates with boisterous clapping or loud hollering, you will have criminal charges filed against you, we’ll set a $500 fine and you will be served,’ I’m pretty sure nobody would have said anything,” he said. “To anybody who is sane, anybody who is humane, this would be embarrassing.”
The defendants are expected to appear in court next week. Ms. Miller said Wednesday that her niece had not even heard her shout.
“We’re going through all this,” Ms. Miller said, “and she didn’t even hear me.”
If you want to see the commission of a truly heinous crime, you can see the video for yourself here. You can also contact Mr. Foster to voice your opinion of his attempt to protect “the peace and dignity of the State of Mississippi” at email@example.com or 662/ 562-4897.
PS: A commenter asked me today (July 20) what ever happened to this case, and I found out Mr. Foster was so roundly criticized, he asked that the court withdraw its charges a day before the defendants were to have gone to trial. You can read about it here. This is the first reasonable thing Foster did, but if you ask me, he’s still proved himself to be an ass.
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