A prankless task: Principals have a few tricks of their own to thwart would-be clowns in caps and gowns

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 27A

It was 1985, and principal Bob Densmore was presiding over the graduation ceremony at J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson. A senior, apparently overcome with glee, decided to do a cartwheel off the stage after accepting his diploma.

He picked the wrong principal to mess with.

“I told him he’d be spending some time around school that summer doing some work if he wanted to ever get his diploma,” Mr. Densmore said.

Oops. That piece of paper the senior had been handed on stage? Not his real diploma – just a placeholder. And Mr. Densmore doesn’t take kindly to distractions on his graduation stage.

The senior evidently didn’t feel like spending June shelving algebra books, so he skipped out.

“I think that diploma is still in a vault at J.J. Pearce High School,” said Mr. Densmore, now principal at Terrell High School.

This month’s graduation ceremonies will give a healthy dose of temptation to the class clowns of North Texas. Rarely in life do they get the chance to play to a larger or more attentive audience.

Few things make principals more nervous. As a result, districts have come up with a variety of ways to prevent the pranksters from getting the laughs they seek. Schools use everything from signed behavior contracts to metal detectors to persuade seniors to sit tight, walk gracefully and, for heaven’s sake, not do a cartwheel.

“We threaten our seniors to an inch of their lives,” Mr. Densmore said.

Pranks throughout the senior year have their own not-so-proud tradition, and districts usually deal with them strictly. By the time graduation rolls around, some seniors assume they are finally beyond the reach of academic law.

Most pranks tend to be on the minor side. Particularly popular is to hand the principal or superintendent a small object when shaking his or her hand on stage – a penny or marble for the less adventurous, other items for the more lewd.

“I’m always anxious: What if someone hands me a condom? Oh my God, I hope they don’t,” said Joy Barnhart, principal for the last 28 years at W.T. White High School in Dallas.

The Irving school district relies on more than simple trust to keep students in line. All seniors and their parents are required to sign a contract guaranteeing behavior “that brings distinction and honor to myself, my family, my peers, and others who have come to recognize and applaud my achievements.”

“We work hard to maintain a dignified ceremony,” said Lane Ladewig, director of operations for Irving schools. “After we’re done, they can celebrate for the rest of their lives, and they should. But at the ceremony, we want to make sure everybody gets the recognition they deserve in the way they deserve.”

Mr. Ladewig remembered one time several years ago when a student planned a bit of performance art as he walked across the stage. “His parents knew it was going to happen – his mom even had a video camera out to tape it,” said Mr. Ladewig, who couldn’t remember what exactly the student did. “Everybody was laughing, but what about the next kid to come across the stage? How was his trip? People didn’t ever hear his name called.”

The senior didn’t get his diploma until after a principal-parent meeting the next week.

For seniors in Birdville schools, graduation brings more security checks than an international flight. Seniors are scanned with a metal detector and have their palms checked by assistant principals. Once they’re seated, seniors are flanked by teachers and administrators on the lookout for any untoward activity.

“We don’t allow any purses, cameras, backpacks, anything on the floor or in the practice area,” said Adele Kennedy, assistant principal at Birdville’s Haltom High School. “We haven’t had any problems. Our kids are very good.

“Of course now I’ve jinxed myself.”

Ashley Smith, a senior at Haltom who will be giving the final student speech at the graduation ceremony, said she hopes her classmates don’t go overboard.

“I know everybody likes to have fun, but there’s a time and a place for everything,” she said. “When you’ve worked 13 years to be able to walk across the stage and all your family and friends are watching, that’s not the time or place.”

Other districts stop short of contracts and metal detectors but still do their best to emphasize the consequences of goofing off. Usually, seniors are lectured and parents get letters of notice.

Schools have varying standards for what’s acceptable. Mr. Densmore in Terrell said he won’t tolerate much of anything that runs counter to the solemnity of the ceremony. Ms. Barnhart said her standards were a little looser at W.T. White’s graduation Sunday.

“A couple of them did tricky little dance steps on stage. I found that amusing,” she said. “One grabbed me and picked me up into the air, and I didn’t have a problem with that. He had said he was going to spin me around in the air, but I told him I’d be as dizzy as a doorknob if he did that, so he toned it down.”

Mr. Densmore said he hopes he doesn’t have to withhold any more diplomas at Terrell’s graduation Thursday night. “I tell them: ‘I don’t want to, but I will embarrass you if I have to. I’ll pull you out of line, in front of your parents.’ A little ounce of fear is good for them.”

Not that acting up hurt that senior from 1985, whom Mr. Densmore caught up with at his 10-year reunion.

“He’s a very successful businessman now, out in California,” Mr. Densmore said. “Some kind of manufacturing business.”