high-schiool-grad

High school valedictorian denied diploma after saying 'hell' in speech

Aug. 20, 2012 at 1:20 PM ET

The local high school in Prague, Okla., is withholding its valedictorian’s diploma because of a certain four-letter word uttered after she had graduated. Prague High School doesn’t plan to release straight-A student Kaitlin Nootbaar’s official record until she apologizes for using the word "hell" in her valedictory address. This might not be a surprise in the rural Oklahoma community, but it is odd considering the school mascot appears to be a young Lucifer himself. 

Kaitlin’s father David told KFOR in Oklahoma City, “Her quote was, ‘When she first started school she wanted to be a nurse, then a veterinarian and now that she was getting closer to graduation, people would ask her, what do you want to do and she said ‘How the hell do I know? I’ve changed my mind so many times.’” He said the line was inspired by the movie "Eclipse: The Twilight Saga," and that when Kaitlin submitted her speech to school officials, she used the word ‘heck’ but slipped in the actual speech.

“She was addressing her audience,” said Kaitlin’s mother, Candy Case. In an effort to connect with fellow classmates, Kaitlin referenced several popular movies including the offending "Twilight" scene and "The Hunger Games."

According to Kaitlin's dad, the audience laughed along with the joke. Case says the family has received no complaints about the speech since graduation took place in May. However, when the diploma did not arrive in the mail, Nootbaar and his daughter went to pick it up, and the principal said she would have to write a letter of apology in order to get it. With the support of her parents, Kaitlin refused on the grounds she did nothing wrong.

Of course, we’re only getting one side of this story. There is no way to know what kind of communication preceded the speech, and what codes the district has in place. The only mention of profanity in the district handbook refers to in school detention, where profanity—along with sleeping and arguing with the teacher—is strictly prohibited. Although media types agree on far more than George Carlin’s seven dirty words you can’t say on television, "hell" is not necessarily among them. Except this is the Bible Belt. Maybe the district has adopted the stricter Parent’s Television Council’s recommendations, which does include "hell," along with "damn," "crap," and "suck."

No one from the Prague, Oklahoma School District was available for comment Monday, and the office would not issue an official statement. Superintendent Dr. Rick Martin told KFOR on Saturday, “This matter is confidential and we cannot publicly say anything about it.”

There is already a call to “Free Kaitlin’s Diploma” on Facebook.

Ordinarily, I’d be all over this kind of stand-up-for-your-rights stance. Stick it to the man, and all that. But here’s the thing. You conjured Hell in front of God and everyone in a tiny Oklahoma town. (Population of Prague, Oklahoma: 2,378) The keepers of the community are offended. What did you expect? Even if the school is completely in the wrong, why not take this opportunity to apologize gracefully?

Apologies are not always about right and wrong; They are often about manners. An apology is expected, so offer one. This is not about free speech or gay rights or access to healthcare. If ‘hell’ was truly a slip of the tongue, apologize. If ‘hell’ was an ill-conceived rebellion or ploy for attention, apologize. Either way, if Kaitlin were my daughter, I’d counsel her to write the letter and be done with it. It’s called picking your battles.

Kaitlin’s mother does not agree. Manners aside, it’s hard to argue with Case, who believes the school administration is behaving no better than a schoolyard bully. “I fully stand by my daughter’s decision,” she said. “You want your children to learn to stand up for what they believe in.”

Oh, and Prague, if ‘hell’ is so offensive, you might want to reconsider that mascot.

Lela Davidson is the author of Blacklisted from the PTA. Her writing is featured regularly in family and parenting magazines throughout the United States and Canada. She blogs about marriage, motherhood, and life-after-40 at After the Bubbly.

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