Where will seniors at Fermi and Enfield High School graduate in June? Apparently not at the First Cathedral in Bloomfield if Tuesday's Board of Education meeting is an indicator. During a discussion on the subject of the graduation location at their first meeting of the new year, board members seemed reluctant to take on the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, both of whom have threatened to sue the school district if graduation ceremonies are held at the assembly hall at the facility.
Board members seemed to dismiss out of hand the desire of seniors at Fermi High School and their parents to continue the recent policy of holding graduation ceremonies at the First Cathedral. Several parents showed up at the board's meeting to urge the board to continue holding the ceremonies at the church. They noted the large space which allows for virtual unlimited guests, handicapped access, climate control, and adequate parking as reasons for having the ceremony there. They also expressed concern that if the graduations are returned to the school's football fields, the ceremonies are held hostage to weather concerns, especially in the early summer months where rain and afternoon thunderstorms are common.
Board member Peter Jonaitis also expressed concern that even if the board decided to go with the First Cathedral location, the two groups in opposition to the location would likely file an injunction, meaning that this year's graduations "would likely not be held there anyway."
Bill Bowker, father of a Fermi junior stated that he has attended seven graduations for family members over the past several years. He noted that during at least one ceremony, a thunderstorm popped up during the ceremony, disrupting the ceremony and subjecting graduates and guests to getting soaked from the downpour. He also said that two other ceremonies were forced inside by weather, and that the graduates were limited to only two guests due to the limited space inside the gymnasium.
Julie Cotnoir, mother of a Fermi senior said that her son's grandparents are driving in from California, and that if the graduation ceremonies were forced inside due to weather, they would be unable to attend.
Speaking as Fermi student representative, senior Meghan Ruff said that the general consensus among Fermi seniors was to have the ceremony at the First Cathedral, although she personally preferred having the graduation at the football field.
Connor Spain, student rep for Enfield High said that there is not a broad consensus either way, but that Enfield seniors generally favor the football field location.
Board Chairman Greg Stokes said that the graduation location discussion was not being held in response to the threatened lawsuit but would be typically taking place this time of year anyway. He further stated that since several board members were out of town during the holidays, this was the first opportunity that all nine board members had to get together to discuss the issue. He said that out of fairness, all board members deserved to hear the public and discuss the issue.
The ACLU and Americans United informed the Board of Education in December that they would sue the board if the graduation ceremonies were once again held at the Cathedral. The claim is that it is a violation of First Amendment rights to "force" graduates and their families, who might have objections to graduate at a religious institution.
Shelley Brown, mother of a Fermi senior stated that the religious aspect of the venue was not important. "It's just a building. I'm not religious at all but that aspect of the location doesn't bother me", Brown said.
Fermi has used the First Cathedral for graduation ceremonies since 2007, while Enfield High has used the location since 2008. The First Cathedral was chosen to hold the graduations while the athletic facilities at the respective high schools were being renovated. The school board chose to continue having the graduations at those venues even after the construction was completed, citing cost and amenities.
Americans United and the ACLU claim that they targeted Enfield due to "numerous complaints" received about the Cathedral location, however board members who were on the board at the time recall most of the complaints centered around tradition as opposed to objections over First Amendment concerns.
Board member Peter Jonaitis said that while conducting research on the issue, he had narrowed down the board's options to three; continue at the First Cathedral, move the ceremonies back to the athletic facilities, or pick an alternative outside location. Outside locations considered include the Hartford Convention Center, the Dodge Music Theater (Comcast Music Center), the Mass Mutual Center and Symphony Hall in Springfield, and the La Renaissance banquet facility in East Windsor.
Board members agreed to receive firm cost estimates for all of the alternative locations, however it appears on the outset that all such facilities would cost substantially more than the First Cathedral. One option discussed was to have both ceremonies on the same date.
However according to Lisa Reda, chairman of Fermi's Safe Graduation Committee, both schools are having their Safe Grad activities at the Healthtrax Fitness Center and it would be extremely difficult to find an alternative location at this time. She also said that at least in Fermi's case, they have put a deposit on Healthtrax.
The board agreed to obtain additional information on the issue, including costs for moving the ceremonies back to the respective schools as well as the alternative locations. Board Chairman Greg Stokes said that the board will likely make a decision early in February.