Alternative High Students Protest Exclusion from Graduation Event

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday June 30, 2006

A handful of students from the Berkeley Alternative High School claim they were denied participation in unofficial graduation festivities earlier this month. 

Three high school seniors say they were ostracized from the La Raza graduation festivities held at St. Joseph the Worker Church in Berkeley June 17. 

The ceremony, staged by students and an adult volunteer, gathered 36 high school seniors and more than 400 parents and family members for an evening-long cultural celebration of Latino/ Chicano students. The event, a tradition in Berkeley, was unaffiliated with the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD). 

Alternative High students who were excluded from the celebration voiced their disappointment at a regularly scheduled meeting of the Berkeley Board of Education Wednesday. 

“Some students were left out of the Chicano/ Latino graduation and we felt that wasn’t right,” said Guillermo Ronquillo, a recent graduate. “That hurts me a lot inside, that’s like telling me, ‘You’re not graduating.’ Everybody else had time to show their colors and their pride, but I couldn’t show mine.” 

Those who attended the La Raza event partook in a religious mass, followed by a graduation ceremony where students received plaques for academic achievement. The event, which ended around 10 p.m., also included student speakers, a keynote address by the director of the Bay Area Hispanic Institute for Advancement, and dinner and dancing. 

According to several sources, an adult volunteer who directs a non-BUSD after-school program, used a personal rift with a student from Berkeley Alternative to exclude other Alternative High School students from the ceremony.  

“The organizer has a personal issue,” said the student, Mayra Marin. “I believe because of me, she denied the rest of us” the right to participate. 

Adriana Betti, director of the Berkeley-based nonprofit RISE (Responsibility, Integrity, Strength and Empowerment) denies the accusation. Students wishing to participate were required to submit paperwork by May 5, and those who failed to do so were not allowed to join the ceremony, she said.  

“The kids have set deadlines,” she said. “It’s just a matter of when they put their paperwork in.” 

In the week leading up to graduation, school district spokesperson Mark Coplan said he and others attempted to reach Betti on several occasions, to no avail. Betti claims she made contact with just one district staffperson, who mentioned a complaint but never forwarded further details. Betti has organized the La Raza celebration off and on for seven years and uses office space on the Berkeley High School campus. 

Members of the Board of Education expressed sympathy with the students Wednesday. “I will do everything in my power to make sure this never happens again,” said board President Terry Doran. 

Superintendent Michele Lawrence was careful to point out that, because the celebration was a community event, not a BUSD event, the district does not bear responsibility. 

“We were very distressed to hear about your experience. The school district did not sanction this,” she said. “This is a volunteer. She is not our employee. But Alternative High School students were excluded and they shouldn’t have been, and I will personally send a letter of concern.” 

To some students and members of the public, the distinction between district-sanctioned and non-sanctioned graduations is unclear. Ronquillo and his Alternative High School classmate Adriana Roman said they always thought the Latino/ Chicano graduation ceremony was a school event. 

Officially, BUSD sponsors the districtwide high school convocation, which took place at the Greek Theatre June 16. Three informal cultural ceremonies—all held in churches and funded by community members—also occurred throughout June.  

One of those events, the African-American Studies Department Celebration of Excellence, a tradition in Berkeley for 16 years, drew fire this year for featuring an evangelist speaker who derided homosexuality. 

That, coupled with the exclusion of students from the La Raza celebration, has prompted Superintendent Lawrence to call for the establishment of some protocol for non-district graduation events. 

In the fall, the district will “identify all the criteria necessary for extracurricular graduations so that there is a decorum and an understanding of what we would hope our volunteers would include in these ceremonies,” she said.  

Board members agreed there need to be some standards in place. “What happened this year, I hope was a real anomaly,” said Doran.