Senior duo sees Sumter School District's decision as 'compromise'

Clark and Johnson will participate in video segments, encourage others to take part


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The two high school seniors who led protests against virtual graduation ceremonies by Sumter School District say they are glad everyone stood up for what they believed in and are thankful a compromise was reached.

Sumter High School's projected valedictorian, Andrea Clark, and Crestwood's projected salutatorian, Travis Johnson, spoke Friday after district administration decided earlier this week to add cap-and-gown video footage of each senior crossing the stage that will be incorporated into the virtual graduations for the district's three high schools.

Seniors from all three schools - Crestwood, Lakewood and Sumter - had protested that in-person graduation ceremonies outside at a football stadium could still be possible with social distancing measures in place.

At their second and final protest on Monday at the district office, Superintendent Penelope Martin-Knox invited Clark and Johnson inside and had a conversation with the duo, who are both headed off to Ivy League schools in the fall.

On Tuesday, the district released the update that it will add the pre-recorded video footage of students in their caps and gowns crossing the stage in their high school auditorium to the virtual graduation ceremonies that will be streamed online.

In a May 1 letter, Martin-Knox had announced the administration's decision to go with virtual ceremonies for the three schools.

Clark, who will be attending Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in the fall, said she feels better about the compromise and is grateful she gets to walk with the video segment.

"It's not our ideal choice," Clark said, "and we still believe an in-person graduation could have been achieved, but it's better than just sitting at home and watching your graduation. At least we get to participate in some way."

If she is named the school's valedictorian, Clark will also have pre-recorded remarks in Sumter's virtual ceremony, which is scheduled for Saturday, June 6, similar to a regular commencement exercise.

She added that she was proud of all the members of the Class of 2020 for standing strong and of the effort made at trying to get something like this accomplished.

Johnson, who will be attending Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, also said the added measure isn't ideal but that he's thankful for the district's addition.

"The focal point of our protest really was 'Give us the opportunity to walk. Give us an opportunity to wear our cap and gown and march across some sort of stage,'" Johnson said. "And, I am comforted in the fact that they did listen to that request. I also realize that in life you can't get everything you ask for. So, while I am saddened we won't have an in-person ceremony with our peers and classmates and the faculty and staff, I'm appreciative of the opportunity to walk across some sort of stage."

Johnson will also have pre-recorded remarks in his school's virtual ceremony, scheduled for Friday, June 5, as the projected salutatorian.

He said it's an honor to graduate high school and that he encourages all seniors to participate in the individual video segments beforehand.

"This isn't the ceremony that we were asking for and requesting, but it is a compromise, and it is, quite frankly, better than the original ceremony," Johnson said. "So, I plead with all my classmates, I ask them, 'You know, don't give up this opportunity. Don't miss that opportunity to walk across that stage because this is an important milestone in all of our lives.'"

Martin-Knox said earlier that safety was at the forefront of the district's decision and that the process included research and consultation with health care professionals. She added she looked at it from the macro perspective and impact on the community.

"The last thing I want to do is find out that someone became ill attending one of our graduations and everyone who attended would then have to go get tested because we wouldn't have known who they came in contact with," Martin-Knox said. "Again, that was the safety measure that we have always put into place."


Sumter Career and Technology Center, Thursday, June 4, 6 p.m.

Sumter Adult Education, Thursday, June 4, 7:30 p.m.

Crestwood High School, Friday June 5, 9 a.m.

Lakewood High School, Friday, June 5, 1 p.m.

Sumter High School, Saturday, June 6, 9 a.m.