THOUSAND OAKS — It took four years of college, but Brad Bjelke finally is getting what he was denied at Saugus High School: recognition as the top graduate.
Bjelke, a Santa Clarita native, topped the Cal Lutheran University graduating class this year with a perfect 4.0 grade point average, netting him the coveted Dean's Award, the university's equivalent of valedictorian. Bjelke also topped his high school class with a 4.44 GPA four years ago. But that was the year the school eliminated the valedictorian designation, drawing controversy and nationwide attention.
Bjelke's parents and others protested the move, and the ensuing fight made him a cause celebre across the county. Bjelke eventually made a defiant valedictory speech on a Los Angeles radio station.
Bjelke, 22, will join more than 550 graduates at Cal Lutheran's 35th annual commencement ceremony today in the school's Mount Clef Stadium. He will not give a speech--that came earlier this month at a special dinner--and he is simply the Dean's Award winner, not the "valedictorian."
But that is good enough for Bjelke.
"It's nice to be recognized," Bjelke said. "In high school I didn't get the chance."
Bjelke said the Saugus High School controversy is behind him, but he clearly has not forgotten the incident. "I've never been too happy with that school since that event," he said.
School officials said they made their decision because competition for top honors was causing severe emotional distress among top students. At one point, the school's principal said that a student became suicidal after his parents pressured him to be first in his class.
Officials and students also said the GPA measurement, which gave extra points for honors classes in certain subjects, discouraged students from studying other subjects and encouraged them to manipulate their schedules to maximize GPAs.
The elimination of valedictorian sent a message to students who worked hard and competed for top honors, Bjelke said. "They're basically saying 'Don't work hard any more,' " he said. "America is founded on competition."
According to Saugus High registrar Carol Goodman, there have not been any problems with the no-valedictorian policy since Bjelke graduated.
Bjelke did not rest on his laurels after his stunning performance in high school.
Besides maintaining his grades, Bjelke helped found the Cal Lutheran chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, a Greek honor society. He also worked at the campus public information office and as a referee for intramural basketball games.
Bjelke said he would build on his political science and English degree by studying law at Boston College. He intends to work on contract law and specialize in the entertainment or sports business.