No-Fly Zone : Contracts, Searches Required to Prevent Disruptions at Graduation

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To make sure this year's graduation ceremonies aren't disrupted by flying Frisbees, beach balls or even tortillas, two Ventura County high schools are requiring seniors to sign a contract agreeing to be frisked for objects that can be sailed into the air, school officials said Thursday.

Although all other Ventura County high schools also take precautions against pranks at graduation ceremonies, only Rio Mesa and Camarillo are making students sign the contracts.

"We take graduation very seriously," Rio Mesa Principal Eric Ortega said. "In the past--not necessarily at this school--there have been instances of kids throwing things like Frisbees and tortillas and bologna."

Bologna? "It flies very well," Ortega said.

Both Camarillo and Rio Mesa are in the Oxnard Union High School District, which takes a dim view of graduation high jinks.

Pat-downs "are strongly encouraged," Assistant Supt. Gary Davis said. "It's up to each principal to impress on each student a need for an orderly graduation ceremony so it's not an embarrassment for family and friends. We'll look for anything that detracts from the seriousness of the ceremony."

Students, however, want the administration to loosen up.

"They tell us graduation is for our parents, but our parents want us to have fun," said Jim Aronson, a 17-year-old Rio Mesa senior. "Throwing a tortilla doesn't hurt anyone. I don't see any problem with it."

Ortega instituted the contract requirement about three years ago after a tortilla was launched at a Rio Mesa graduation. Aronson, who was there to watch his brother graduate, thinks the principal may have overreacted.

"The tortilla went up, the tortilla went down, and everybody laughed," Jim said. "It wasn't a big deal."

Aronson's classmate, Brent Thomas, 18, also doesn't like signing the contract. "I think it's kind of dumb," he said. "We have to sign, but I don't think we ought to."

Wendy Lascher agrees. A Ventura attorney and mother of a Ventura High student, Lascher said she thinks the contract "is ridiculous. Graduation is for the students, not for the parents or the administration," she said. "Schools are treating graduates more like children instead of creating an atmosphere of responsibility. It's demeaning."

Even though some Rio Mesa students dislike the contract, Ortega said, "we have never had any resistance from the kids" over the contract.

But the parents of one Rio Mesa senior did contact Ortega to express their displeasure with the document.

"To our knowledge, our son has never been a discipline problem or given the school any reason to search him," said the student's father, who asked not to be identified. "I don't think you can search someone in this country without cause."

Ortega is allowing the student's parents to be present when he is patted down before the June 18 ceremony.

Although the contract is not legally binding, it must be signed by today by students who want to participate in the ceremony.

The one-page contract contains 11 clauses, including one that reads: "I agree not to call attention to myself, nor do any act that will disrupt the commencement ceremony or cause embarrassment to the graduating class."

The contract "is a record that you know the rules," said Jeannette Jennett, who handles community relations for the Oxnard district.

Most county high schools reportedly have never had problems with unruly students at graduation but still do a visual check to make sure the seniors aren't trying to pull a fast one.

"We don't pat them down, but we do check for bulges or anything that looks like a problem," said Susana Arce, assistant principal of Nordhoff High School in Ojai. "I've been here since 1977, and the only incident I can remember was last year when a student removed his gown and had another gown underneath that he had written something on to make a protest. But it went over like a lead balloon."

At Moorpark High School, "we're pretty strict," said Principal Cary Dritz, who will be trying to avoid a repeat of a recent year's graduation when a delivery boy showed up with a pizza in the middle of the ceremony.

"We don't necessarily pat them down, but we do check them hard," Dritz said, explaining that staff members march in with the graduates and sit with them.

Jennett doesn't see any humor in graduation tomfoolery. "To one student it may be a prank," she said, "but to another, it can ruin a special rite of passage."

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