SANTA CLARITA — The speech may be over, but the battle rages on.
Parents outraged by Saugus High School's decision not to honor a valedictorian at this year's graduation ceremony because school officials felt the competition was unhealthy for students are asking the district's board of trustees to reverse the policy. Board members have vigorously defended the school's decision, but acknowledged they are reviewing it to see if any changes should be made.
The school's ruling kept Brad Bjelke, 18, who finished at the top of his class with a 4.44 grade point average, from delivering a valedictorian speech at his June 22 graduation ceremony. But the controversy received nationwide attention and Bjelke read a defiant graduation speech the next day to millions of listeners on a Los Angeles radio station.
"I can't get the recognition I deserve from the school or the school board and I think that's pretty sad," Bjelke told William S. Hart Union High School District trustees at their regular meeting Wednesday night. "I feel I've been cheated."
Bjelke's brief comments received loud applause from 15 to 20 parents who attended the meeting to protest the school's decision, several of whom spoke before the Saugus youth made his impromptu remarks.
Competition to be the best in academics, as in athletics, makes many students work harder to reach the top, said Mike Gadbury, president of the SCV-Newhall Optimists Club. He called Saugus High's contention that stress from the competition is unhealthy "a bunch of bunk."
"We feel that the recognition of students for academic excellence is a part of the school's curriculum and should be a part of the graduation ceremony," he said.
Saugus High decided at the end of the 1992-93 school year to eliminate valedictorian, salutatorian and top-10 honors for students, instead designating anyone with a 3.75 or higher grade point average as an honors student. Officials announced then that it would take effect with the 1993-94 graduation ceremony.
Principal Cheryl Brown said that one student was so depressed about pressure from his parents to finish first he became suicidal and that other students have also experienced severe emotional problems.
Most high schools honor a valedictorian, but William S. Hart High School, also in Santa Clarita, has not done so for many years. Parents at the meeting said they want a blanket declaration from the trustees that all local high schools will honor a valedictorian.
Board member Patricia Hanrion said the policy will be reviewed by the trustees at an undetermined date, but emphasized that the board strongly supported Saugus High when the decision was made. She said some parents have also been misinformed about the school's policy, emphasizing that Bjelke got to wear a special robe with other honors students at the ceremony, that his name was announced as the top-ranked student when he led the procession out and that he was first to receive his diploma.
"The No. 1 student at Saugus High was greatly recognized," Hanrion said.