While some decision makers at Lebanon High School consider it a victory graduation ceremonies went on as planned during potentially severe weather conditions Saturday evening, several parents call it a failure.
Some quick decisions were made at about 4 p.m. to move the event to the school’s gym instead of using the planned football stadium as a storm front moved into the area. On Friday, school leaders made the decision to change graduation time from 7 p.m. to 5 p.m. to try and get the pomp and circumstance out of the way in time for the weather system to arrive.
But Mother Nature had its own plans.
“It was the decision to have it in the gym,” said principal Myra Sloan. “When the decision was made, we were able to set up in about 30-45 minutes. Our first concern was the safety of our students. The students were very appreciative of the teachers going the extra mile. I was very appreciative as well.
“[Director of Schools Mike Davis] and the sheriff and I had a conversation about it, and it was decided we would have it inside. As I understand it, there was even a rainbow out there after the rain.”
Ultimately, graduation ceremonies kicked off at about 6 p.m., and Sloan said traffic into the school was non-existent at the time. Heavy traffic could be found in both directions from the school’s entrance on South Hartmann Drive prior to graduation with eager parents and family members trying to get on to campus.
“That's one reason we came before the [Wilson County Board of Education on Monday night], because that's one thing we have no control over,” Sloan said. “We had fewer students graduate than Mt. Juliet and Wilson Central. I know that it's been, concerning prom, that you have it at the school. That's another thing. Obviously I don't have any control over the traffic. We had at least six officers directing traffic, and we were doing everything we could.”
Several parents, however, didn’t see it that way. About 5,000 parents, family members and others wanting to witness graduation Saturday were limited to about 2,250 people allowed in the gym. Others were given the opportunity to watch the ceremonies without audio in the school’s common area and auditorium, according to Sloan.
But parent Laurie Vinson said the video feed was spotty at best in those locations, and she and her sister, Kathy Snyder, didn’t get to see her son, Jesse Scott, graduate.
“We go into the gym, and it was standing room only,” Vinson said. “They were making announcements that if you weren’t a parent, you had to leave. No one was leaving.
“It was basically a blue screen without volume. There were a lot of parents and grandparents who were missing it. There were a lot of people who should have been in there who weren’t.”
After an hour of waiting in traffic, being told to leave the gym for fire code purposes and waiting another hour on the video feed, Vinson said she just gave up.
“The feed would be on and then it would drop. After about an hour, we just left,” Vinson said. “[In the gym,] we were told we were blocking the way. We weren’t the only ones. There were lots of people.”
Davis said there was no choice but to move graduation indoors, and it was the first time in about 20 years ceremonies were rained out at the school.
“It rained,” Davis said. “I don’t control the weather. We got the weather reports, and the weather reports were that we needed to get everyone inside, so we moved it into the gym. The teachers went out in the rain and got chairs and other things and moved them into the gym.
“Safety trumps everything, and I’m just glad we didn’t have anything worse like what came through Oklahoma.”
Lebanon police chief Scott Bowen was another parent who didn’t get to see his son, Adam Bowen, graduate.
“It’s just unbelievable I missed my son’s graduation,” Bowen said. “And I’m not the only one. There were several others.
“To say they did the best they could do is just not acceptable. My in laws drove all the way from Alabama to see their grandson graduate and didn’t get to see it. That’s not right. Maybe it’s time to move it to MTSU or some place out of town so that this doesn’t happen again. This is just not acceptable.”
Bowen said he blames traffic flow over weather conditions as the reason he wasn’t present for his son’s graduation.
“We were in line for traffic,” Bowen said. “Someone text us and said the gym was full and they weren’t letting anyone else in. At that point, we left because there just wasn’t any point in watching it on television. My wife made it in, but my son and in laws didn’t get to see it. That’s a memory we will never get again.
“Our biggest concern about getting to the school in the mornings is the backing up of traffic on Hartmann Drive. This is a Wilson County school situation, not a Lebanon city situation. This is their responsibility.
“I personally believe there are some things that could be done to get people off Hartmann Drive and into the school.
“I’m not for opening that back gate. It’s not worth someone getting hurt in the afternoons to save 10-15 minutes for people getting out.”
City Councilor Rob Cesternino was among the parents huddled in the gym. He got to see his daughter, Elizabeth Cesternino, graduate. But he said the situation wasn’t handled well.
“One of the biggest problems I had was the incredible lack of leadership from the principal and assistant principals.,” Cesernino said. “At no time did the principal or assistant principals show any concern, empathy or apologize for the situation. At the end of the day, there were some people who didn’t get to see their children graduate from high school. That is the most unacceptable thing I’ve ever witnessed.
“This could have been done by allowing A-L graduate and then M-Z, so that everyone could see their child graduate. I didn’t see anyone from Lebanon High School show any leadership during that whole event.”
Cesternino said he hopes it never happens again.
“I will saturate that place with Lebanon police and public safety officers, and we will shut Hartmann Drive down except to parents and family so that no one has to go through that again,” Cesternino said. “I don’t care how much overtime it costs us.”
Wilson County Sheriff Robert Bryan’s son, Austin Bryan, was among the 327 students to graduate. Bryan said he watched from the gym’s doorway, but wasn’t involved in the decision-making process.
“They are the decision makers as far as the school. I was there to see my son graduate. I did relay information. The school system made the decisions. I was asked for information, I gave it, and the school system made the final decisions.
“I did get to see my son graduate. I was from a distance, standing in the entrance of the gym with a lot of other concerned parents. It’s sad some parents didn’t get to see their children graduate.”
Davis said Monday, all graduating seniors would get a free copy of the video made of the ceremonies. Sloan said students could pick them up at the school. But as of Monday evening, she had heard no complaints.
“I haven't heard anything,” Sloan said. “I have heard there were some things on Facebook, but not a single parent to my face.
“Certainly I would say that I'm very sorry. Every decision I make is based on the safety of our students. We did, under the circumstances, try to accommodate everyone.”
Wilson County school board member Greg Lasater wasn’t at graduation Saturday night, but he had family there supporting his niece, who was among the graduates. He said next year’s seniors, who decide where to have graduation, might rethink the football stadium.
“I would say this would put a damper on where they have graduation next year,” Lasater said. “I don’t think it’s right to go through 12 years of schools and limit them to having six to eight people there. They should have as many people there as they want. It’s their day.
“I hate it for the seniors and their parents. I can see where these parents are pissed. I’d be pissed, too. From what people are saying, that’s an understatement.
“You hate to second guess anybody, but when they changed the time once, it probably was a sign the weather wasn’t going to cooperate. It should have been set up in the gym sooner. I think it would have eliminated the chaos, but not the number of people being in there. When you change it at 4 p.m., and there are thousands of people coming in there, things got chaotic.”