Brookville was loud today. The sounds of car horns and cheering from a rally filled the air as drivers showed their support of a protest about the current plan for Franklin County High School’s 2020 graduation ceremony.

“This is a peaceful protest,” said Halle Robinson, a FCHS 2020 senior. “We are catching the attention of the COVID-19 Task Force, trying to get them to rethink their decision.”

The current plan for this year’s graduation ceremony is for all seniors to walk across a stage that will be set up on the football field, weather permitting, with no more than six guests each on June 7. Each student will have an appointment time to cross the stage and receive their diploma from FCHS Principal Keith Issacs. A professional photographer will be present to take each student’s photo and there will be a video live stream available for viewing.

“We understand that this isn’t supposed to be taken lightly. We know that this is a big deal, but we also know how big of a deal it is to our lives and how much it is actually affecting us that if they allow us to follow the guidelines that we’re supposed to then we could push it back,” said Brylee Pace, a FCHS 2020 senior. “They should know that we are going to do everything we can. We understand that it’s hard, but we are going to do everything we can to change their minds.”

Robinson organized the rally on Facebook with other parents who have children in the class of 2020 in a group called FC 2020 Graduation. She wanted to make sure the students and their families had an opportunity to be heard by those making the decisions: the COVID-19 Task Force, the county health department, the county emergency management agency, the superintendent and the school board.

“We know they can hear us at the government center and out at Brookville Waterworks,” said Robinson of the horns blaring in support of their cause.

“We support everyone's right to peacefully assemble, just as we support whichever decision the school corporations make regarding graduation, said Franklin County Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Lovins, the point of contact for the FC COVID-19 Task Force. “We encourage those who rally to follow safety guidelines such as, staying out of the roadway, allowing pedestrian traffic to flow, wearing a mask, and maintaining social distancing standards.”

The seniors and their families participating in the protest said they learned about the plan to have graduation by appointment through social media and local news sources. The protesters said the school did not provide any information until the news had been out and people had started debating it online.

The students have been contacted via email with a request from the school to send in photos and videos from their school year.

“We’re working on the video for them and that’ll be something they have that no other class has,” said Issacs.

Issacs explained that the school will provide a compilation video to the graduating class as a keepsake to help make up for all the milestones they lost in the last quarter of their final year at FCHS.

Pace noted that the students understood the decision wasn’t made solely by the school board.

The protestors' understanding of the decision-making process for graduation was that the school had been advised by the Franklin County COVID-19 Task Force to hold graduation by appointment could be the best way to have graduation while keeping the community safe.

“I’m disappointed about it as much as they are with the way things have turned out,” said Issacs. “We talked with the task force and tried to do the best we could with the situations we’re facing right now.”

The seniors who rallied would’ve liked an opportunity to provide input before learning that they were going to lose one more piece of their senior year.
“I know our class representatives were in a meeting, but it sounds like the decision had already been made,” said Trey Allen, a FCHS 2020 senior.

Lovins said he met with Issacs, Assistant Principal Dustin Riley and the senior class sponsors on May 5. He said that the group talked about what safety measurements would need to be taken depending on what kind of ceremony the school decided on.

“On May 11th, FCCSC Superintendent Dr. Howell informed the Task Force that a decision had been made on graduation, and, after weighing different options, the school corporation decided that they would be conducting a ‘virtual graduation’ in June,” said Lovins. He explained further that the school developed a safety plan, considering where the state would be in the Indiana Back on Track plan and the safety guidelines set by the Indiana State Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and presented it to the task force on May 12.

Issacs explained that the Indiana Department of Education and the state superintendent instructed administrators to work with their local health officials to plan for their schools.

Lovins explained that the task force has been in regular contact with all three high schools in Franklin County--FCHS, Oldenburg Academy and Batesville High School. OA is planning to have an in-person ceremony in August and BHS is having a ‘virtual graduation’ on May 30 “with no large gatherings,” according to Lovins.

“I wish they would listen to us,” said Halle. “If they had kids that are 2020 seniors, they’d be fighting with all their heart like we are.”

Robinson said she was motivated to plan the rally after learning that other area schools are planning commencements that will look more like the traditional ones most people are familiar with.

“We are trying to prove that we can wear masks and still have a real graduation,” said Robinson.

These area schools are waiting until after July 4 to hold the final gathering for their seniors.

Halle and the seniors on the sidewalk described the ceremony they are hoping for:

Picture the entire class on the FCHS football field with a limited number of guests. All of the students are in chairs spaced six feet apart with their guests in chairs at the same distance from each other and other guests in the bleachers and standing around the fence six feet apart. Everyone is wearing masks. The Class of 2020 gets to throw their caps and cheer together one last time.

That is what they want for their high school commencement.

“The football field is plenty big enough for a normal graduation with everyone spread out,” said Allen.

“We can’t make everyone happy, but we are going to do the best that we can because we love these kids,” said Issacs.

“It’s been hard for me,” said Pace. “With all the schoolwork and learning online...I think about all the graduations I’ve been to. It’s a big milestone, and now I don’t get one. It’s heartbreaking.”

The seniors and their parents were on Main Street for several hours Friday before moving their protest to the Franklin County Community School Corporation's administration office on 10th Street. There, they chanted: "We can wait 'til July." 

“No one wants anything but a traditional ceremony. These students have worked hard during their time in school and we empathize with the situation that we all are in,” said Lovins.

“At least with Batesville High School and Franklin County High School holding a ‘virtual graduation’ the seniors will be able to have a graduation. No one knows what the future will bring. Hopefully we are able to make it to stage five of the back on track plan, but there is no guarantee that we will.

A request for comment from Superintendent Debbie Howell was not returned before the deadline for this story.