About 80 people, including parents and other guests arriving shortly before the 3:30 p.m. start of the May 30 ceremony, were shut out of Statesboro High School’s graduation at Hanner Fieldhouse, officials acknowledged this week.
Georgia Southern University, which rents the big gymnasium to the Bulloch County Schools for their graduation ceremonies, issued an apology that the full seating capacity was not available. The university also promised a full refund of Statesboro High’s rental fee.
Among those who did not get in were family members and other guests of graduating senior Bloyse “B.J.” Harrison Jr.
His mother, Lisa Harrison, was provided a chair on the gym floor behind the graduates. Hers was one of about 40 chairs set up there after GSU personnel initially locked the doors to further entry, citing safety concerns. But by the time Harrison got her seat, her son had already received his diploma, she said. Meanwhile his younger siblings, his father and some guests from out of town remained outside.
“That’s a moment in time that we’ll never get back,” Harrison said. “It’s done and over, and that was just something we were building up for from the day he was born or the day he entered school.”
Statesboro High School Principal Dr. Ken LeCain, interviewed about the problem generally but not informed of Harrison’s remarks, appeared to echo them.
“It’s a terrible thing,” he said. “There’s no way you can turn back the hands of time and do it over again, and it’s a terrible thing for somebody to miss their child’s graduation.”
School system officials were working on a letter, explaining how the situation occurred, to send to all parents of the SHS class of 2015.
Seats blocked off
All three of Bulloch County’s public high schools held their graduations in Hanner the same day. The Southeast Bulloch and Portal ceremonies came off without any major complaint. But Statesboro High’s largest-ever graduating class required most of its contracted 3,500-seat audience capacity, which officials say was not available.
A large video screen that had been used for Ogeechee Technical College’s commencement nine days earlier remained up, with electrical cables attached. This blocked the south-section stands, with about 700 seats, from use, said Hayley Greene, public relations specialist for Bulloch County Schools.
However, Greene noted that GSU facilities staff members first barred entry about five minutes before the start of the ceremony and that they complied when school system staff asked them to reopen the doors so that people could be seated in the added chairs. Some vacant seats also remained, scattered throughout the building, she said.
The school system officials emphasized that they did not want any rift with the university over what occurred.
“Georgia Southern University is a wonderful community partner to us in many, many ways, and we will professionally work to resolve any issues on this event for the future,” Greene said.
LeCain talked about another factor, growth in Statesboro High’s graduating classes. With almost 350 students marching, the school issued fewer tickets to each graduate. In previous years, each graduate was assigned 10 tickets, but when additional seats remained, tickets for these were also divided evenly among the graduates.
That worked when there were 280 graduates, LeCain said. But with 344, by last count, marching this year, each received 10 tickets and no more.
“With the size of our graduation classes increasing, the number of tickets has got to go down, and parents don’t like that either,” he said. “It’s a double-edged sword.”
Statesboro High’s own auditorium seats 1,200. The school could hold graduation in its football stadium, but as LeCain notes, he has no control over the weather.
He also has no intention of moving graduation from Hanner.
“Georgia Southern has been very good to us,” he said. “There’s no better place to have it.”
Without going into detail, the university’s statement acknowledged that “modifications to the venue were in place … which reduced the maximum seating capacity.”
“Georgia Southern University deeply regrets the disappointment and inconvenience this caused for parents, family members, students and the School District,” said the statement released Friday by Jan Bond, GSU associate vice president for marketing and communication.
The statement also directed an apology to those affected.
The high school was not informed so that it could properly notify those who planned to attend, the university acknowledged.
“As a result, some guests were prohibited from being able to enter the facility and participate in this important day due to safety concerns,” Bond wrote.
“For future events such as graduation ceremonies, we will evaluate any changes or modifications in seating capacity and make sure those changes are reflected in contracts and discussions with event planners,” the university promised.
The statement concluded with an assertion that the incident brings to light an issue that university officials have recognized for some time:
“Neither the city of Statesboro nor Georgia Southern University have venues large enough to accommodate the growing needs of the community. We hope to work collectively with local officials and community stakeholders to find a solution to this growing problem. Until then, Georgia Southern is committed to providing safe and enjoyable venues for community events.”
The Bulloch County school system was scheduled to pay Georgia Southern $11,842 for facility use and security for the three graduations. Based on the number of graduates from each, the total included $4,195 for Southeast Bulloch High, $877 for Portal Middle High and $6,770 for Statesboro High, according to information from the school system.
Any graduates or their families who were adversely affected by the seating problem should contact LeCain at (912) 212-8860 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Greene said.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.