Students protest peacefully for graduation

in Coronavirus/Schools by

By Mike McCombs
Photos by Bob Sofaly

Many Beaufort County high school seniors and their parents are unhappy there will be no traditional outdoor graduation ceremonies this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. And some of them came together in Beaufort’s Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park on Saturday to voice their displeasure, peacefully of course.

The Beaufort County School District has allowed for each school to plan and hold virtual indoor ceremonies. The individual ceremonies are being filmed by the school district with the intent of putting them on social media.

All this because the district deems outdoor ceremonies in football stadiums to be unsafe.

Jamie and Liz Bodie, parents of a May River High School senior, started a Facebook group, “Beaufort County Class of 2020 needs a proper graduation,” which now has more than 900 members.

One of those members, Beaufort High School’s Heather Butler, was responsible for Saturday’s protest.

“I saw the emails (in the group) that people said they got and that nothing was changing,” Butler said. “And I thought what about a peaceful protest about this … the schools, this is what they want to see from us. The reason they’re not wanting to (hold a graduation) is they probably don’t think we can social distance. What is we did a public demonstration of that. We can socially distance, We can be respectful. And we won’t disturb anyone while we make our point. And if you put it in the news, they can’t really ignore that.”

An asthma sufferer, Butler was actually worried specifically about the virtual graduations being held inside. So she put her idea on the page to see who would support it. When it was clear it could happen, she started planning.

Roughly 20 to 25 members of the Class of 2020 and 20 to 25 of the parents showed up for the socially distanced walk around the Waterfront Park. There were also students and parents present for support.

“I was very happy,” Butler said of the turnout. “A few May River, a few Beaufort High. Then a group of May River and Hilton Head people came. Then Battery Creek’s class president showed up.”

There was to be a school board meeting on Tuesday, May 19. Butler was hopeful the board would talk about it and might change their mind about graduation.

As of Monday, Butler had heard nothing from the Beaufort County School District. Superintendent Frank Rodriguez did release a statement, however.

“The Class of 2020 has had to make a lot of sacrifices, and our high schools are working very hard to celebrate their achievements safely. We believe the graduation movies we’re producing and the drive-through celebrations we’re planning will be rewarding and fun for our seniors and their families.” 

Butler said she understands the risks.

“I understand there is a virus out there,” she said. “I completely understand it. I know people are dying.”

But she said we also live in a county where cases are down and deaths are fewer. And she pointed out 66 other districts in the state –  the vast majority – are having some sort of “proper” graduation.

“If we can do it properly without any risk to anybody … I still encourage wearing masks if they’re inside, around other people and to stay socially distant … yes, there may be bigger things out there, but some of those things you can’t change. If there’s something you want to change, you might as well go ahead and try, in the safest way possible, which is why we showed up the way we did,” said Butler, who will study Biology at Clemson University in the fall.

“It’s not just about graduation. It’s also about having our voices heard by a board and superintendent that say they’re for us. But for the last 12 years, it hasn’t felt like that.”

Above: Graduating Seniors from Beaufort and May River high schools make their feelings known as they hold signs protesting the decision to hold “virtual commencement ceremonies” offered to them. The seniors and their parents, along with other supporters, marched Saturday through the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park in Beaufort.