Student denied diploma over speech disappointed but ready to move on

Edgecombe County superintendent responds, investigates principal

Eamon Queeney—North State Journal
Marvin Wright poses for a photograph in his home June 20in Pinetops

RALEIGH — Graduation is supposed to be a day full of celebration and excitement, but for one Edgecombe County senior it included embarrassment and disappointment.Marvin Wright has made headlines both nationally and internationally as the senior class president who chose to read a speech he wrote himself versus a school provided one on graduation day.Wright reflected on his four years at Southwest Edgecombe High School as “pretty good years.””It was a great high school experience,” said Wright.Wright played sports, was a member of the Spanish and Science Clubs as well as Future Business Leaders of America, and named prom king. He achieved grades of A’s and B’s while working two jobs.”I wasn’t given any rules for my speech, instructions on length or content,” he said. “I went online to research speeches, lengths and topics to help me prepare.”At graduation practice, held several hours before graduation on June 9, Wright learned he needed to read a speech prepared for him by the school administration rather than his own.As he waited with his class before their formal walk into the ceremony, Wright was encouraged to give his own speech.Wright texted his mother for advice.”I wanted him to feel comfortable and confident, and to follow his heart,” said Jokita Wright.Her son decided to pull out his cell phone and read the speech from his phone. As he did, and shown in the video of his presentation circulating social media, Principal Craig Harris and senior adviser Shelton Langley are seen whispering in the background.”I heard them whispering behind me, but I continued on,” said Wright. “After graduation was over, all the graduates went to pick up our packets containing our diploma, final transcript and report card.”There wasn’t one for me. I was told Mr. Harris pulled my diploma and wanted to see me, but he had already left,” he continued. “His truck was still outside in the parking lot and another teacher told me he was in his office.””I was very upset. Our whole family was upset. … We didn’t even take pictures after the ceremony,” said Jokita.On Sunday afternoon, Harris called and came by to deliver a diploma to Wright.”There wasn’t a conversation or an ‘I’m sorry.’ It was just, ‘The superintendent sent me to deliver your diploma,'” said Jokita.Wright added that Edgecombe County Superintendent John Farrelly and Assistant Superintendent Marc Whichard jointly called Wright to issue an apology and compliment him on his speech, but said no reasoning for withholding the diploma was given.An open letter by Farrelly appeared June 18 on the Dancy Communications Network Blog in which he offered three facts related to the June 9 graduation.”The valedictorian and salutatorian are the only two individuals who were asked to write a speech, sign an agreement and had a ‘deadline,'” wrote Farrelly. “There were several speakers that were provided scripts. The scripts were developed so that students could be involved in various roles in the program. This has been customary for several years at SWEHS.”There was a violation of school rules during the ceremony. Following the ceremony, a student revealed via social media that their diploma was withheld after the ceremony,” Farrelly continued. “When a student violates school rules, consequences are almost always assigned. This situation was unique in that there was not an opportunity to assign traditional consequences because it’s obviously the last day of the students (sic) K-12 tenure. Thus, a decision was made to withhold an individual’s diploma.”The student earned the right to receive the diploma. In my opinion, what should have happened was a private conference with the student/family to address the rules violation and share disappointment in not following school expectations. Withholding the diploma was not the proper step. Once I found out that the diploma was withheld, I asked stakeholders to setup an immediate appointment with the family to discuss the rules violation and to provide the student with the diploma. I did apologize to the family and student on behalf of the school because I felt that the situation was mishandled. It’s not the first time that I have apologized to stakeholders on behalf of the district. If we have erred, then I believe we have a responsibility to own it.”The Edgecombe County school system did not respond to calls and messages asking to confirm the veracity of the letter.In the two weeks since, Harris has been suspended with pay by Edgecombe County Public Schools as an investigation into his handling of the diploma is underway.The Wright family is choosing to move forward following this situation and is grateful for the support that had flooded in from around the country.”I’m glad he received his diploma, but he was robbed of this special time,” said Jokita.”I choose to stand up for what I believe in and I appreciate everyone supporting me and sharing my story,” said Wright.