Judge’s order allows Sophie B. Wright students to walk at graduation, but it may have come too late

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Sophie B. Wright Charter School on Napoleon Avenue.

Sophie B. Wright Charter School on Napoleon Avenue.

After being banned from walking at graduation for participating in a senior prank, six Sophie B. Wright Charter School students got the legal clearance to participate in the ceremony on Monday when an Orleans Parish Civil Court judge ruled against the school administration.

But the 8:45 a.m. order may have come too late for students to make it to the 9 a.m. ceremony, their lawyer said. Graduates were supposed to line up by 8 a.m.

The students were barred from graduation and suspended after participating in a senior prank water fight on April 5 that took place inside and outside the school. In a statement, the charter school’s board president said the prank damaged school property and several people were injured. Several dozen students were initially suspended, but the school rescinded the punishment following criticism over its severity. Some students, however, would still be barred from graduation.

Lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center filed the lawsuit on behalf of six students after talks with the school did not produce an outcome, SPLC Senior Supervising Attorney Victor Jones said. Jones said a seventh student dropped out because she feared retribution from school director Sharon Clark and the school’s attorney, Tracie Washington.

The lawsuit was filed Friday and the hearing held at 8:30 a.m. Monday, thirty minutes before graduation was set to begin.

“To date, our students had not been given the opportunity to have their side of the story be told as required by the handbook itself,” Jones said.

According to Jones, Washington maintained that because walking at graduation is considered a privilege, not a right of students, that the school’s policy handbook does not demand a full appeal.

In a statement to NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, Washington said the graduation ceremony was “one of several senior privileges that can be earned or withheld.”

But Jones said the handbook makes no distinction between appeals for formal discipline, like a suspension, and appeals for other types of punishment. Students were allowed to appeal their suspensions but not their ability to walk at graduation, he said, noting the school argued that was a privilege.

“The exact language of the handbook says ‘You will not be punished for breaking a rule or taking someone else’s rights away without being given a chance to tell your side of the story,’ ” Jones said.

Jones said his students’ side of the story was heard in court Monday morning. Civil District Court Judge Chris Bruno issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting the school from stopping the students’ participation in graduation.

Another Wright student filed a similar lawsuit last month. But according to a report by WDSU, the parties met behind closed doors in court on Friday, and it was decided that the punishment would stand.

In a statement, Washington said the school was not notified of the second lawsuit when it was filed on Friday or of the Monday hearing.

“Defendants are confident had they been served properly they would have appeared in Court and would have received the same outcome as occurred Friday before Judge [Ethel] Julien,” who presided over the earlier suit, Washington wrote in an emailed statement.

“The fact Southern Poverty Law Center attempted to disrupt this joyous celebration by 101 Sophie B. Wright students who followed the rules to participate in their graduation ceremony, says volumes about the futility of SPLC’s ‘Children’s Rights’ New Orleans office,” she wrote. “This was a case of lawyer ego run amok and shame on them!”

Jones disputed Washington’s story, saying that the school was notified of the hearing.

Asked if the students would be allowed to participate in any other graduation-related activities, Washington said, “They are graduates.”

In a statement Jones said: “In the future, it is our hope that issues such as this do not require court intervention, and that everyone in the education community will make decisions to protect students’ rights, not violate them.”

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