The change in location of Lynchburg City Schools’ high school graduations was the focus of conversation at Tuesday’s Lynchburg City School Board meeting as parents and students voiced concerns.

E.C. Glass High School and Heritage High School decided in December to move 2020 spring graduation ceremonies from their on-campus facilities to the Vines Center on Liberty University’s campus. After receiving emails and phone calls from community members expressing concerns about inclusivity, Superintendent Crystal Edwards added a presentation about the change in venue to the board’s agenda Tuesday.

“On behalf of LCS, I’d like to say that we do value our students, our staff, our families, and our decision to change to the Vines Center was really based on trying to provide a larger venue to accommodate more family and friends to join us in the celebration,” Edwards said.

The district did consider City Stadium as a potential graduation location, Edwards said, but the potential for heat or rain lead the district to look for a larger indoor venue.

Another concern Edwards said she’d heard was that of costs associated with using an outside facility versus a facility in the district, and Edwards said the two were not cost-neutral.

Holding a graduation ceremony at the high schools in the past has had a direct cost of around $4,215, according to Deputy Superintendent Ben Copeland. This cost includes staffing custodians, maintenance personnel and police officers to work the event, as well as live-streaming the ceremony online. Copeland said indirect costs, including utilities associated with operating a building on a day it typically would be closed and preparing the space, could not be given a dollar amount.

The venue change is expected to cost the city at least $8,800, according to emails reviewed by The News & Advance.

Edwards asked the principals of the two high schools to address concerns the ceremonies would not have the same traditional feel if they were in the Vines Center.

E.C. Glass Principal Jeffrey Garrett and Timothy Beatty, principal of Heritage High School, stressed traditions would not be affected by the venue and the ceremony would continue as it has in the past.

“The only thing that is changing is the building,” Garrett said.

During the public comment session that followed, seven speakers shared their perspectives.

E.C. Glass senior Kate Staton said she won’t participate in the graduation ceremony if it’s held at the Vines Center.

“I think it is a terrible decision,” Staton said. “It will make students of other minorities like LGBTQ or other races, religions feel extremely uncomfortable and unsafe.”

Staton said if more space is the only goal, City Stadium would be a more appropriate choice as E.C. Glass students have a connection to that space. Both high schools use City Stadium for athletic events. Staton said she feels the decision also violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the establishment of religion.

Hope Townes, the Lynchburg City School Board’s attorney, said because the Vines Center was selected for its convenience and size, not for any religious reasons, it doesn’t appear to be a violation of the establishment clause.

E.C. Glass junior Jessica Williams, along with several other speakers, said she’s hoping school and district officials will opt to hold the graduation ceremony at the City Stadium complex. Williams, who identifies as gay and Jewish, said she does not feel welcome or safe on LU’s campus.

“I understand the need for a larger space to conduct the ceremony, but there are alternatives to a place that is a religious organization and that works actively against a large portion of the American populous,” Williams told the board.

Liberty has long hosted graduation ceremonies for public schools in nearby counties because of its large event space.

“Liberty University is proud to support our local Lynchburg community in a variety of ways, and we are happy to host the Lynchburg City Schools for their graduation ceremonies for the Class of 2020,” Scott Lamb, Liberty’s senior vice president of communications and public engagement, said in a statement last week. “Because of the ample seating inside the Vines Center, graduates will be able to have all their family members join them on their memorable day of joy.”

Jennifer Williams, Jessica’s mother, said: “everything about this decision and how it was made is wrong.” Jennifer Williams said she believes many students will skip their graduation ceremonies out of fear or moral conviction because of the “anti-gay, anti-Semitic, and anti- non-Christian beliefs” she feels LU embodies.

“LCS is clearly telling those students and their families that they are not equal, they are not wanted and they do not belong,” Jennifer Williams said. “How can anyone feel safe on that campus?”

Jennifer Williams said she prefers City Stadium as a larger space.

Aaron Traphagen said his daughter is refusing to attend her graduation and encouraged the board to consider if the Vines Center fits in the district’s message of inclusivity. Traphagen said the district can’t separate the Vines Center from the message of the college.

“Every building, every item on that campus is a tool to convey their message to the world,” Traphagen said.

Robin McGivern, the parent of one current and one former Glass student, was the last public speaker to address the board, and she had one point to make.

“If there’s one single student whose kind is not accepted on that campus, then our school’s graduation should not be held on that campus. Period,” she said.

During her closing comments, board member Kimberly Sinha thanked the students who brought their concerns before the board Tuesday. She said she was proud of the students who brought their concerns to the board.

“That’s a very difficult thing to do, especially on such a highly charged and emotional topic,” Sinha said. “And they spoke very well, I was really, really impressed, so I’m very proud of our students for doing that.”

No motion or vote was made to change the location of the graduations, but Edwards said the public comments are being considered.

“We’re going to do everything that we can to make sure that teachers, kids and families feel comfortable,” Edwards said.

The next Lynchburg City School Board work session is scheduled for 5 p.m. Jan. 28 in the board room at the LCS School Administration Building.

— Richard Chumney contributed.

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