Adding to the issue is usually the fact that the student's family heard about the matter a mere week or two prior to the commencement exercise, which is a once in a lifetime event.
The bottom line is that if a student has met the academic requirements for graduation from, for example, a public high school, they DO have a legal right to a diploma from the institution they attended. For example, if they get those 220 units, pass the CAHSEE (California High School Exit Examination), and meet their class requirements, they earn their diploma which cannot be denied.
However, the "right" to walk and participate in a graduation ceremony is an entirely different matter as it is not a "right" at all. Walking at graduation is a privilege, similar to driving, and it can be taken away.
However, a school, in any commencement denial, cannot act in an arbitrary and capricious manner. Something arbitrary and capricious would generally be something at the whim or fancy of the administration or that is not supported by "fair or substantial reason" (see Zuehlsdorf. v. Simi Valley, 2007 2nd Dist. Cal). For example, if Joe S. was denied the right to walk only because the Principal did not like him, such denial could be arbitrary and capricious. But, if Joe was denied because he had 5 suspensions in his senior year and a school board policy said that 5 suspensions meant no commencement exercise, that may not be arbitrary and capricious.
My most recent issue involved a student being denied the ability to walk at an eighth grade graduation. We won the matter as the rights outlined in the district graduation policy had been denied my client. Per the school board policy, the student was supposed to receive notice and the basis for the denial, had a right to respond prior to any denial, and he also had an appeal right. He was denied all of these rights. To top that off, other students who were in very similar situations to my client were being allowed to walk at graduation. As such, the denial looked like out and out targeting, which of course is ARBITRARY AND CAPRICIOUS. When we raised these issues my client graduated AND happily walked at graduation.
In another situation in which I was involved, a high school student received her first suspension during her senior year, and was denied participation in graduation and other senior activities. We were able to argue that the imposition of such as harsh penalty was arbitrary and capricious. Needless to say, she walked at her graduation and regained some senior activities.
If your child has been denied the right to walk at graduation, check the school policies to see if they provide rights in the situation, and also attack the decision as arbitrary and capricious if you can. Having an attorney in the mix can't hurt either.
Education Law Attorney
LAW OFFICE OF MICHELLE BALL
717 K Street, Suite 228
Sacramento, CA 95814