There is no infallible way to define and detect "disruptive behavior," but the school did its best by stationing four observers around the auditorium, and all four wrote down the same five names during the ceremony. Are the educators racist? When I called one of the kids who were punished, Nadia Trent, she said that during her student days, she had never encountered racial bias from school officials.
In any event, bad behavior is not a product of skin color. Well-to-do white schools have their share of people who feel entitled to do whatever they want regardless of how it affects others. Back in 1999, an outdoor venue in suburban Chicago banned a local high school from holding commencement exercises there after students and parents threw marshmallows, trampled flowers, ignored no-smoking signs and insulted employees. This is a high school that is less than 1 percent black.
In the aftermath, the superintendent acknowledged the problem in terms that would have worked equally well for Galesburg: "We should talk about these things: civil discourse, courteous demeanor, following and obeying rules, refraining from unnecessary interruptions."
At a typical graduation, most people don't need to be told to show courtesy and respect for others. But there are always some attendees who insist on calling attention to themselves. And all it takes is a handful of the unruly to spoil the experience for everyone else.
Some people think that a commencement is a celebration, and that celebrations by definition should be unrestrained. By that logic, wedding guests should be blowing noisemakers during the recitation of vows. Modern America does not lack for parties. What it increasingly lacks is rituals that treat landmarks in life with a sense of solemnity.
School officials in Galesburg may have fallen short of a perfect solution, but they at least are trying to preserve a tradition their community values. They understand that a society which treats every happy occasion as a frolic is a society in danger of forgetting that some moments are worthy of dignity, respect and even awe.