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Graduation flap in Connetquot district over letting ineligible students march

Connetquot High School seniors at their graduation ceremony

Connetquot High School seniors at their graduation ceremony on June 25, 2015. Credit: Kristy Leibowitz

A unanimous decision by Connetquot's school board to allow students who did not meet diploma requirements to march in a graduation ceremony Thursday night was blasted by the district's teachers union as "just plain wrong."

Board trustees, in a 5-0 vote Tuesday, temporarily lifted a ban on commencement participation by students ineligible for diplomas -- a suspension of long-standing rules. That action allowed such students to process with more than 500 classmates at a ceremony held on Connetquot High School's football field.

Lee Kennedy, the board's president, said the decision applied to three students, all of whom were "on track" to complete graduation requirements in August.

"Walking with one's classmates during his or her graduation ceremony is a symbolic moment in every student's life," Kennedy said in a statement Thursday afternoon. "The board of education recognizes this and understands sometimes a student may fall short of the criteria required to graduate."

Kennedy added that the board, because of privacy laws, could not discuss "the specific personal and/or medical circumstances" that might have played a role in students not meeting the criteria.

Across Long Island, districts differ in their graduation policies. Many ban students who haven't completed diploma requirements from marching in commencement exercises. Others allow such students to process with classmates and to receive diploma covers -- albeit empty ones.

Tony Felicio Jr., president of Connetquot's 600-member teachers union, questioned the board's actions in suspending rules for members of the 2015 graduating class, adding that he believed trustees were bowing to parental pressure. The union's vice president, Brad Lindell, said the organization had evidence that at least seven students received waivers.

Felicio also said the board had suspended not only a policy dealing with participation in commencement ceremonies, but a rule that denied course credit to students who had missed 28 or more classes during an academic year. Connetquot, like many other districts, allows parents to appeal denial of credit under such circumstances.

Specifics of the board's action on that rule were unclear Thursday, and trustees did not return calls seeking more information.

The union president said those policies had been in effect for six to nine years and had proved effective in boosting student attendance and achievement.

"What message are we sending to students when consequences for their behavior are clearly outlined at the beginning of the school year, as well as to the parents of those children, and then those rules are changed unilaterally?" Felicio wrote in a letter sent to the district administration earlier Thursday.

The letter said the board's actions, which followed recommendations of district administrators, had been taken without teacher input.

"That is unprofessional, disrespectful, and just plain wrong," Felicio wrote.

The letter drew a sharp rejoinder from Lee, who said the teachers union "should be ashamed of themselves for creating yet another issue against our hardworking students where there need not be one."

Adults attending Thursday night's commencement voiced differing opinions on the Connetquot board's actions.

"That's upsetting that they allowed that," said Donna Basile of Hauppauge, who was on hand to see a nephew graduate.

But Larry Gutman of Ronkonkoma, whose daughter, Halle, was among the graduates, said the students should be allowed to march.

"That's a good rule if they know the children are on track," he said. "If they're going to make it eventually, why not have pictures with your graduating class?"

Nicole Natoli of Ronkonkoma came to see her brother graduate and said she was OK with ineligible students walking with their classmates.

"To penalize them socially because of academics is a little rough," she said.


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