AASD vows new grad plans

While age-old school policy allows only district-issued garments to be worn by Altoona Area High School graduates during the ceremony, the Altoona Area School Board made an exception after an administrator on Monday night denied a student from wearing a U.S. Army sash with his graduation gown.

Robin Moore, the mother of graduate Kyle Stephens, who was not allowed to wear a U.S. Army sash to the graduation ceremony Monday, said she checked with all other districts in the county and they encourage wearing the sashes — and those students’ military branches are announced with their name.

She addressed the school board Tuesday during its meeting in the William P. Kimmel Board Room.

She asked for an apology from Dave Bufalini, the assistant high school principal, who she said physically removed the sash from her son and threatened him with a police escort if he did not comply. Bufalini was not in attendance at the meeting.

All board members apologized, as did Superintendent Charles Prijatelj. Prijatelj said he did not know what transpired and every district where he’s worked before has allowed sashes to be worn.

“I was unaware that happened,” Prijatelj said. “This is a very strong community for the armed forces. It’s clear we need to recognize those students.”

The board agreed to change its student handbook to allow military sashes to be worn during graduation.

Board member Rick Hoover acknowledged that it may be no consolation to Moore, but the policy changed because of her son.

“It is no consolation, but your family and son changed the policy. You are responsible for every Altoona Area child going to the military being able to wear their sashes,” he said.

Moore was appreciative of the policy change.

“It does mean a lot to us,” she said. “He has friends in 11th and 10th grades who will be graduating. He knew it was over for him, but he wanted them to be able to show their commitment to the military.”

Another parent, David Carles, addressed the board with another graduation issue from Monday. He was one of the parents denied entrance to the Fieldhouse for the ceremony after it was moved from Mansion Park because of the forecast for thunderstorms.

“I was denied. I had a ticket and me and my significant other were there. It should have been crystal clear,” he said. “If tickets were given out according to seating, then how can parents be denied?”

Prijatelj said Tuesday that 40 or 50 people were turned away. There were 2,200 tickets printed and 2,280 seats, he said.

“In hindsight, there are different things we could have done. In the future, this will not happen again.”

Board members discussed the Jaffa Shrine Center as a bigger venue.

The district stopped hosting the ceremony at the Jaffa because there is no air conditioning and people were carried out from heat exhaustion. But air conditioning is being installed at the facility this year, board members said.

Prijatelj noted that the Blair County Convention Center also could be an option, but it’s flat. Everyone is on the floor. People can’t see the graduates.

Board member Rick Hoover said people were calling him saying they knew some people had fraudulent tickets. He asked if they were easily photocopied. Kelly Irwin Adams said she had heard the same thing.

Prijatelj had no knowledge of that.

“We are looking at the Jaffa. We are looking at rain dates. We had a very serious talk this morning,” he said.

All board members offered personal apologies.

Another member of the public, Kelly Williams was the last to step to the microphone and suggested the apologies rang hollow.

“The last time people were locked out of graduation was in 2016. The only two board members on the board then were Sharon Bream and Ron Johnston.”

Johnston responded to Williams’ statement: “Yes, I was on the board then. …”

Williams interjected: “What’s your excuse?”

Johnston responded that the board members were in the gym Monday for the graduation ceremony and none of them knew about it.

“If anyone knew what was going on, we wouldn’t have allowed that,” he said.

From the crowd of about 25 people, the formality of the meeting started to break down. People spoke from their seats.

“Why didn’t you know? Isn’t it your job to know these things?”

One man, Brian Conrad, walked out.

“It’s senseless. They don’t listen,” he said.

Outside, he said he had children who will be graduating in the future.

“I don’t want this to happen again when they graduate.”