Eagleville principal: Valedictorian misled
Holton says he promised to leave bad statements out
By SCOTT BRODEN
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Eagleville School valedictorian Abraham Stoklasa rehearsed his speech without two objectionable lines Friday morning yet reinserted them from memory at that night's graduation, an official said.
"I'm sorry he felt the way he felt about our school," Eagleville Principal Rhonda Holton said during a Tuesday phone interview. "I'm sorry he gave me his word and didn't live up to it."
"I did rehearse it without the lines (in question), but I never said I wasn't going to read it," Stoklasa said.
Holton said she wanted Stoklasa to cut only two lines from his speech that she felt would offend many about the school. One suggested that the school prepared all of its students for any station at McDonald's, and the other implied that the school's weightlifting class wasn't much of a mind stimulator.
"I think the two lines could be hurtful to other people and are insensitive," said Holton, adding that she and Assistant Principal Bill Tollett appealed to the student several times to change his speech.
"Last week Abe threatened me in my office when I asked him to change the two lines in his speech," Holton said.
Stoklasa told the principal he'd take the issue to the newspaper, file a lawsuit against her and the school district and cost her a job, she said.
"He was very angry," said Holton, adding that she asked someone else to be in her office to hear his words but didn't feel physically threatened by him. "I felt like somebody else needed to hear him because he was so adamant and out of control."
Stoklasa described the encounter in a different way.
"I was not out of control," he said. "I was very respectful. I was exercising my First Amendment rights. I never said I'm filing a lawsuit. I said there have been lawsuits over this kind of thing before, and schools have lost, and they don't have a legal right. I never threatened that I was going to fire her because obviously I don't have a position to do that."
Holton, at the advice of Rutherford County Schools Director Harry Gill Jr., said she decided to withhold Stoklasa's diploma after the ceremony and told the boy to contact her office to meet the next week to pick it up.
Stoklasa and his mother, Gale Stoklasa, made an appointment to meet at 8:30 a.m. today, and they'll be represented by American Civil Liberties Union attorney Melody Fowler-Green.
"I think denying a student their diploma under these circumstances is going too far," Fowler-Green said. "This is supposed to be one of the happiest days of his life, and I think they have gone too far for speaking his mind."
If school administrators believe they have some pedagogical reason for censoring a student such as Stoklasa, they need to provide clear guidelines and consequences, Fowler-Green added.
Holton said she was upset to learn that Stoklasa followed through with his verbal threat by contacting the media and an attorney.
"Now if he gets my job tomorrow he would have done it all," said Holton, adding that she made her position clear to Stoklasa about his speech.
"I told him (the day before graduation) if he refused to change it and take those two lines out that he would not get to speak, and he said, 'I don't want to speak.'"
Holton said she then contacted the student's mother to appeal to her to reason with her son so he'd accept the compromise.
The principal said the mother called back to say her son agreed to speak under the conditions.
"What he did was take out the whole paragraph," Holton said. "He said he wouldn't do it. I said, 'Are you sure you want to take this whole paragraph out? And he said, 'Yes.' Then he turned around, and he did do it. He put the whole paragraph back in."
Before the ceremony, the principal instructed a woman operating the sound system to disconnect the microphone if Stoklasa varied from his speech.
Holton said she did everything possible to persuade Stoklasa to agree to her conditions.
"I wanted him to have his opportunity," said Holton, recalling how Stoklasa's sister Amber was a valedictorian the year before but couldn't speak or attend the ceremony because she was sick. "I just didn't want it to be at the cost of others."
Holton further said she consulted with school system attorney Angel McCloud about the issue and learned that principals are well within their rights to persuade a student to alter a speech, such as the two lines in question in this case about the school.
The first line states: "You have given us the minimum required attention and education that is needed to master any station at any McDonald's anywhere."
Stoklasa said Tuesday he meant no offense by his humorous comment and followed the line with: "Of course, I am only kidding. Eagleville is a fine institute of higher learning, with superb faculty and staff."
The second line followed the compliment about Eagleville: "Although weightlifting wasn't much of a mind-stimulator. But thanks for getting us out of a real class for (four) years, coach (Jason) Scharsch. All of us really do appreciate it."
Stoklasa said his goal was to get a few laughs in his speech, which concluded with complimentary words:
"But, now, seeing everything I have to leave behind, including my childish ways and mischievous innocence, I will always keep Eagleville close to my heart. As seniors, we all have our own ambitions and dreams and lives to pursue, but wherever our separate pathways take us, we will always be Eagleville High School's class of 2005."
Stoklasa's mother said her son's intention was not to criticize Eagleville through his speech but to get attention so more people would hear his comments about how great the school is.
"I know he wasn't meaning anything personal by it," the mother said. "That's his personality. He's an attention getter."
Holton, though, said the lines were inappropriate for a graduation ceremony.
"I guess it would be fine for Zanies comedy club, but graduation is not a roast," Holton said. "I still contend they were offensive to certain people. If you say we're a bad school, then prove we're bad. Our test scores don't reflect we're bad."
Holton said she didn't want aunts and uncles and people from out of town to have the wrong impression about the school.
The principal further said she had no problem with some of Stoklasa's other humorous lines, such as, "Accept that some days you're the dog and some days you're the fire hydrant."
"To me that's humor," Holton said. "Nobody asked him to remove that."