Steve Chapman

If you go to a football game, a rock concert or a fraternity kegger, you will not be surprised to find people screaming, laughing, bumping chests, ringing cowbells, baying at the moon and generally shedding their inhibitions. If you attend a wedding ceremony, a funeral or a confirmation, however, you may expect those around you to comport themselves in a polite and restrained manner.

School commencement exercises used to fall into the latter category, but they have been moving -- make that descending -- toward the former. The question being addressed in Galesburg, Ill., is whether to surrender to that slide or try to reverse it. And I'm happy to report that school officials there not only favor reversal but have actually managed to bring it about.

A couple of years ago, the graduation ceremony at Galesburg High School had come to resemble a circus, but without the calming influence of elephants. Students crossing the stage were dancing and flashing hand signs; friends in the audience were jumping up, whooping and raising a racket with air horns. Deluged with complaints from parents and others who couldn't see or hear at crucial moments, local officials decided a change was in order.

They adopted several reforms, the most important of which was to establish clear rules and require students and parents to sign forms listing forbidden conduct -- such as yelling, dancing, making gestures, using noisemakers and other "disruptive behavior."

The school also spelled out the consequences "should the graduating student and/or family/friends admitted to the ceremony" misbehave: The student would be barred from the school party and would not get an actual diploma (though he or she would still be considered a graduate). An insert went into the commencement program in case anyone needed one last reminder.

Administrators say the new policy produced a huge improvement. But this year, a few recalcitrants had to test the limits, and the school decided to withhold diplomas from five students. They were offered the chance to get their diplomas by performing eight hours of community service. On Wednesday, though, school officials relented, saying it was time "to move on."

In the enforcement phase, the students perceived racial bias, noting that four of them are black and the other is Hispanic. At other schools, there have been complaints that imposing commencement decorum amounts to forcing nonwhites to abide by stuffy white conventions.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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