Philadelphia Students Were Denied Their Diplomas for Celebrating Their Graduation

Graduation is supposed to be one of the most significant milestones of your life. As you walk across the stage to accept your diploma, each step signifies the sacrifices, the long hours, and the well-earned accomplishments that have brought you to this special moment. It is an exciting time for you and your family who cheer you on, and most cannot help but physically express their excitement whether through a light-hearted wave or a dance as they walk.

Imagine being punished for your celebration.

On June 9th, 2023, Principal Lisa M. Mesi of The Philadelphia High School For Girls publicly embarrassed  Hafsah Abdur-Rahman and additional graduate students on the day of their commencement by withholding their diplomas, all because they chose to celebrate their achievements. Now, there is public outrage over the incident, and many are calling for the principal to be demoted. 

Video footage taken by parents in attendance demonstrates how outrageous Messi’s actions were. In Abdur-Rahman’s case, she was dismissed for doing The Griddy dance across the stage. When she extended her hand out for the diploma, Messi brushed her away in the direction to take a seat. Similarly, the other two students merely waved/made hand gestures and one flipped her hair, resulting in unnecessary shame. Based on the videos, it seems like the principal’s disapproval stemmed not only from the actions of the students but also from the cheering of the parents. 

Although the students did receive their diplomas after the ceremony, Messi’s actions were completely inappropriate and robbed these students of joy. Some members of the school community, including former Alumnae, are backing the Principal’s actions arguing that it was made clear on behalf of tradition that students should not make any gestures and attendees should not cheer, since it creates a distraction from the graduation. This argument is hypocritical and ironic. Clearly, this graduation will forever be known as a shameful and awkward memory. The Principal’s actions embodied the disruption they wanted to avoid in the first place. Not to mention, it is quite frankly a ridiculous rule. There should be laughter, excitement, and personality beaming at such celebratory moments like this. These girls worked hard for four years straight. It is not going to harm anyone if they do a little dance across the stage.

Certainly, withholding the diploma from these students was in poor taste and excessive, to which The School District of Philadelphia concurred. So why did Messi find it to be appropriate? Did she exercise abuse of power? According to the Student Handbook, there is no specific rule that prohibits the dance or waving to the crowd, so it seems to be a subjective decision made on behalf of administrators. Even if it was verbally communicated to students, it is unlikely that students were aware of the severe consequences they would be met with. Additionally, students were punished for their parents actions (cheering, clapping, etc.) as well, which is outright unfair.

For Abdur-Rahman and her family, this graduation was supposed to be special, and instead, they were deprived. In recent years, she [Abdur-Rahman] has lost her sister to a stray bullet and lost close family members to the pandemic. In addition, she was the first in her family to have a high school graduation. No tradition is more important than the celebration of these girls, and the principal should have had more empathy and excitement for these young ladies. We never know what road someone had to take to be where they are today, so if a graduate wants to smile, wave, or innocently griddy across the stage as they accept their diploma, then let them.