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Directive to shorten graduation cuts GW student speeches

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A group of honor students at George Washington High School, which includes Katelyn Campbell, who recently went to court with Principal George Aulenbacher after a disagreement about an abstinence-only assembly, will not be allowed to speak at graduation next week as they had planned.

But Aulenbacher and Kanawha County Schools administrators say the move has nothing to do with the recent controversy over sex education headed by Campbell, and is part of a countywide directive to prevent lengthy graduation ceremonies.

Several GW students with "highest honors" -- which means they've maintained a 4.5 grade-point average and have completed numerous honors courses -- were told Wednesday they could not speak at next week's ceremony despite being urged to turn in their speeches for review for the past few months, according to Campbell.

Only the two students with the highest GPAs in the school will be allowed to make a speech. Campbell is ranked seventh in her class with a 4.8 GPA and says it was advertised that any student with highest honors had the option to make a speech.

 Aulenbacher "just said, 'No, I've already decided.' He seemed pretty firm in his opinion," Campbell said. "Students have already memorized their speeches. We just don't understand why he allowed us to write our speeches when we weren't actually allowed to speak. It's a week away."

Campbell took to Facebook to voice her complaints with the abrupt change of plans, saying, "Politics, I suppose, play a greater role in the graduation of seniors than I had previously expected."

Aulenbacher said cutting back on speakers is simply an attempt by the county to streamline schools' graduation ceremony guidelines.

"Yes, the students would've liked knowledge of this sooner, but it's just a really busy time of year," he said. "We have allowed any highest honor students interested to speak in the past, but the county is looking for a more unified approach.

"This is absolutely nothing against [Campbell]," he said. "Anybody that knows me knows that I'm not hateful toward kids. That's not me at all."

Other highest honor students at GW declined to comment or did not immediately return phone calls.

Last month, Campbell made national headlines when she spoke out against Christian speaker Pam Stenzel being allowed to speak at GW. During an assembly, Stenzel talked about "the consequences of premarital sex" and told teen girls in the audience that having sex would lead to infertility, among other health complications. Stenzel also spoke at Riverside High School.

Campbell demanded Aulenbacher's resignation for allowing Stenzel's assembly at the school, and requested an injunction against him in court after she says he threatened to call the college where she'd been accepted and insult her character.

Kanawha Circuit Judge Duke Bloom denied her request for an injunction and said the matter should not have been brought to court.

Kanawha County Schools Superintendent Ron Duerring said that because the school board received complaints last year about graduation ceremonies that involved rowdy audiences and prolonged services, they've been working with the mayor, police and venue operators to develop new guidelines to crack down on those issues.

Just last week, Mark Milam, assistant superintendent of Kanawha's high schools, sent an email to principals reminding them of the new guidelines, which address everything from safety hazards and rehearsal times to parking and bathroom breaks.

"The longer graduation ceremonies take, the harder it is for the students, as well as those in attendance, to stay focused and remain comfortable," Milam writes in the email. "I would ask that you be mindful to limit the number of speakers, both students and guests, if at all possible so the ceremonies can be swift, honorable, and ceremonious."

School board President Pete Thaw said principals have always been in charge of their graduation ceremonies, but after running into problems last May, the board is aiming for shorter ones.

Thaw, though, had hoped the principals would warn students of the changes ahead of time.

"I don't know if what Aulenbacher did is correct or not. I don't know if all of the schools are choosing to do just two speakers," he said. "Mr. Aulenbacher has made several moves I didn't think were good, but he's the principal up there. That's his authority."

At Riverside High School, the policy has long been to extend the option to any student with highest honors.

"I don't have a minimum or maximum," said Riverside Principal Valery Harper. "If I had 10 students that graduated with highest honors, all of them have the opportunity to choose to speak."

At South Charleston High, the policy has been to allow the top two students in the class, in addition to the student body president and senior class president, to speak at graduation.

"This is a time for kids to be honored and an opportunity to be showcased," South Charleston Principal Mike Arbogast said. "But it's each school's principal's discretion to manage their own graduation."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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