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Parents sue Laurel County Schools over graduation

From The Sentinel-Echo -

Graduation ceremonies for Laurel County seniors scheduled for May 6 and May 7 have been reset, pending a lawsuit filed by several South Laurel High School parents on behalf of their children.

The Laurel County Board of Education had designed a plan in which students would participate in a graduation ceremony by groups of 10 students in four designed areas of the school. But parents of approximately 40 students filed a lawsuit on Monday, requesting that those plans be changed to include the parents in the ceremony.

That lawsuit was brought before Laurel Circuit Judge Michael O. Caperton on Tuesday morning through a Zoom conference with Laurel County School Attorney Larry Bryson and the plaintiffs' attorney, James Wooten. Parties in the lawsuit as well as Laurel County Superintendent Dr. Doug Bennett were also on hand to present information regarding the process of graduation ceremonies.

After three separate conferences, Caperton ordered the school district to revise their plans to include the graduate and two biological parents or parent figure to attend the ceremony. That process, however, will require revision of the plan devised by school officials - thus delaying the ceremonies to different days.

The lawsuit was filed by Bill Meader, Hunter Payne, Brad and Martha Breeding and other parents of South Laurel High seniors with suggestions to follow the Gulfport, Mississippi plan that allows parents to attend the ceremony.

But Bryson argued that the Gulfport Plan was only a plan and had not been tried, even in Gulfport, stating that the plan devised by school officials was designed to ensure the safety of students and to "do something special" for them since traditional graduation ceremonies cannot be held due to the coronavirus outbreak and restrictions from the Center for Disease Control and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear against gatherings of over 10 people. Bryson said the school district was following the suggestions of the Kentucky Department of Education for graduation ceremonies.

Both Bennett and Bryson said their plan had been approved by Mark Hensley, director of the Laurel County Health Department, which is charged with monitoring social gatherings.

Wooten, however, said the KDE's suggestions had options and the plan devised in Gulfport allowed four people to participate with the graduate.

The day-long hearing ended at approximately 7:30 p.m., with Caperton issuing an order stating that the court was "aware of the Kentucky Department of Education guidelines as they apply to graduation ceremonies due to the COVID-19 and the Kentucky Cabinet of Health and Family Services that the guidelines remain the same, it is hereby ordered that the Board of Education of Laurel County, Kentucky implement a Student Plus 2 Plan, defined as a graduating student plus two biological parents or parent figure to participate in 12th grade graduation ceremonies."

Upon that order, the parties as well as Hensley will meet at 5 p.m. Wednesday, May 6 to present a revised plan that will include the parents in graduation ceremonies. That will move graduation ceremonies to later this week, possibly beginning on May 7.

Bryson and Bennett both objected to several aspects of the inclusion of parents, stating they had spent many hours devising a plan that would allow 10 students in separate sections of the schools. Students would be required to have social distancing, would walk to the stage to receive their diploma and exit the school. Bryson said the plan was devised in "staggering" sections to not violate the Governor's order of gathering in groups over 10.

The school district's plan was for students to walk to the stage, receive an envelope containing their diploma from a school official who would be wearing gloves, have their picture made in their cap and gowns by a professional photographer, and exit the school. The ceremony would have also been videoed so that students would be able to see their fellow graduates receiving their diplomas. Bennett explained that the envelopes will have sat for 72 hours prior to presentation - the time that health officials say the coronavirus will die on paper products. Students waiting in the hallways would be separated by 2 1/2 sheets of plexiglass until they entered the gymnasium.

Wooten, who represented the parents and students in the lawsuit, argued that graduation is often an adolescent milestone for students and that parents should be permitted to attend, stating that it was essential to the students' "physical and mental health."

Bennett explained that the school system's primary goal was to keep students safe and allowing additional people to participate in the ceremony could expose them.

"We're accountable for the students' safety first and education next," he said. "We've done the best we can do to comply with the guidelines and put the focus on the students."

Bryson said allowing parents to attend would increase the chances of spreading the coronavirus because "we don't know where these people have been." He cited seven of the district's schools being shut down for meals due to some staff having family members exposed to the deadly virus.

"The last figure I have is that there are 1.2 million confirmed cases and there have been 69,680 deaths," he said. "I was just told that we have two new cases here today. We don't want the school district to be responsible or related to COVID."

Caperton, however, felt that the plan could be modified to allow students and two parents to participate and could be done by allowing two students and their two guests to occupy the section designated for students to stand for social distancing. Despite Bryson's objection that the action would draw out the ceremony for additional days - days in which teachers are grading the homework and recording grades - would extend their work time past the ending date of May 21 that fulfills their required contract hours. The last day of school for students is May 14.

Bill Meader, one of the parents in the lawsuit and an attorney himself, said he was familiar with South Laurel High School's layout and suggested that parents and the graduate could remain in their vehicles, be called out to line up when their designated time arrived and that the student could receive their diploma while parents watched. Meader said students and parents could wear masks inside the school to deter transfer of any germs - a factor that the school officials argued was the origin of devising a plan for student-only ceremonies.

Caperton questioned the availability of masks, with Bennett responding that the school district had procured masks for every graduating student. Meader, whose child attends South Laurel High, then said he would see that parents had masks, if necessary, and that everyone would be required to wear a mask to participate in the ceremony.

Bennett said he would utilize the one-call system on Tuesday evening to notify students and parents of the graduation delay.

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