A last-minute order by an Orleans Parish Civil District Court judge would have allowed several Sophie B. Wright Charter School students to take part in the school's graduation ceremony Monday morning after being barred by the school for their alleged participation in a senior prank.
The injunction from Judge Christopher Bruno, however, came too late. By the time the students got news of the relief about 8:45 a.m., it was too late for them to get to the 9 a.m. ceremony.
Graduates were supposed to line up at 8 a.m., according to a school release.
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The injunction request had been filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Victor M. Jones, a senior supervising attorney for the center, still praised Bruno for his decision.
"The court’s decision is a welcome reprieve from the kinds of widespread and arbitrary school discipline practices that violate students’ due process rights," Jones said, adding that while it came too late to allow the students to walk across the stage, the injunction showed that the students deserved the chance for their side of the story to be heard.
The ruling was made after six of the school's seniors — 18-year-old Kayla Cloud, 19-year-old Heaven Cloud, 18-year-old Kale Broden, 18-year-old Kariell Bass, 18-year-old Jerry Collins Jr. and a 17-year-old referred to as J.E. — sued the school Friday.
The lawsuit, filed by SPLC lawyers, originally said the graduation was scheduled for 10 a.m.
"I'm excited that we won the case, but I'm still hurt because we couldn't graduate with our class, our friends and our peers," Kayla Cloud said.
The injunction was the latest legal move resulting from a senior prank that as of Monday had prompted two separate lawsuits in Civil District Court.
A video obtained by WWL-TV showed dozens of students congregating in a stairwell at the school April 5 before many went outside with water guns and water balloons.
Though it's not shown in the video, James Watson, president of the charter school's board, said the students used eggs, vinegar and mustard inside and outside the building, and that a bathroom had been "compromised."
Watson said the prank injured one teacher and one student and damaged school property. He also said school officials had issued multiple warnings that students would face "disciplinary action" if they participated in such an activity.
"Our policies are clearly defined, and our students are constantly reminded that their actions have consequences," Watson said.
The students were suspended and barred from several senior activities, including graduation.
The suit filed Friday said the school never showed evidence that the six senior plaintiffs had actually participated in the prank or disrespected faculty or staff members.
Their lawyers alleged the school did not give the students ample opportunity to contest their punishment via a disciplinary hearing before the school's board of directors.
The suit said that school officials caused the students to suffer "irreparable harm" and violated their due process rights guaranteed under state law.
"There is no amount of money that can replace the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to participate in, and to have their families witness, commencement exercises for a high school diploma with graduating classmates and in their graduation regalia," the suit said.
Another 18-year-old student who allegedly participated in the incident sued the school earlier. Lyric Naje Fernandez's suit also said that Wright officials violated her due process rights in not allowing her to properly contest the allegations in a hearing.
She had also asked for a preliminary injunction allowing her to attend graduation, saying she would suffer "irreparable harm" otherwise.
The students' suspensions had already been retroactively revoked.
Tracie Washington, an attorney for Sophie B. Wright, defended the school's administration after Fernandez's suit was filed, saying they handled the discipline "exceptionally well" and "have been exceptionally fair."
In Monday's statement, Jones said violations of students' due process rights are "still too frequent" in New Orleans and across the country.
“They harm all children, but students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately the victims of these punitive, unjust practices," Jones said. "Fortunately, the court decided to put students first, granting them the right to walk alongside their peers at today’s graduation ceremony. Though they missed this morning, they know they had a right to be there."
A water fight won't keep Sophie B. Wright seniors out of school after all, according to a report from WWL-TV.