Families left upset with administration after Bladen County high school graduation

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BLADEN COUNTY, NC (WWAY)  – A night to celebrate accomplishments left several West Bladen families shocked and embarrassed.

Now they’re speaking out in hopes the school board will do something to change how graduations are handled at West Bladen High School. One family says their night took a turn for the worst before the graduation ceremony even began.

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“It completely ruined what should have been a special day. That you can’t get back,” said Jessica Parnell.

Parnell was celebrating her daughter who finished 2nd in her class. They came early to find a seat for Jessica’s brother Josh who is in a wheelchair. Cellphone video that Jessica shared on social media shows the school’s principal asking him to move.

“The way she acted I just knew I had to let people know because I knew it was wrong,” Jessica said.

The Parnell’s says they asked the Fire Marshal about where they were seated prior to the ceremony beginning and they were not asked to move. In fact, Josh and the family told the principal they would not move. They sat there on the recommendation of a school board member according to Josh. It was not until a Bladen County Sheriff’s Deputy stepped in that they were given little to no options.

“He said ‘I will escort your whole family out if you do not move to the back’,” said Josh Parnell.

It left the family embarrassed and in shock. The seats they moved to were behind all of the graduates and Jessica says Josh barely could see his niece give her keynote speech.

The Parnell’s were not the only ones rubbed wrong by school administrators that evening. The Paris family also left in shock following the graduation ceremony.

“We want to do their best and then show them what it is like to reap the rewards you don’t pull the rug out from under them,” said parent Wendy Paris.

Paris’ son wore a JROTC military cord along with a fellow cadet. They walked the stage received the diploma case and everything. However, when it came time to get his diploma, Paris says the school administrator refused to give him it, saying he was not allowed to wear the cord and because of that, his family would have to come by the school Monday to pick it up. Her son had to leave the next day, Saturday, for basic training in the Midwest.

Paris’ son during graduation (Wendy Paris)

“The only time they’re going to get recognized on graduation day is with those cords,” said Paris, “I have no problem with rules and policies and I have not problem with the consequences, but the way they did it. You know as I said Ms. Kelly saw them in the line before they entered the gym, she saw those cords around their neck, why didn’t she pull them out of the line?”

The school system responded to our request for comment saying, “Nationally recognized Academic cords are the only cords allowable or permissible during high school graduation.”

A spokesperson went on to list the society cords they accept ranging from Honor Graduates, CTE Completers, National Art Honor Society, National Technical Honor Society, and the National Beta society.

(Wendy Paris)

The school returned our request for comment a day after the story aired surrounding the incident with the Parnell family.

A school spokesperson told us that Principal Hester, “explained [to Josh Parnell] that the graduates had practiced processing with clearance in front of the doors and bleachers and needed to be able to process into the ceremony as they had practiced. Although sound equipment was set-up along the front of the bleachers, it was located two sections down from the entrance doors and not blocking the processional.”

WWAY’s Andrew James reached out school board members as well. We know that board members Chris Clark issued an apology to the Parnell’s as well as Chairman Vincent Rozier reached out to the Paris family issuing an apology.

“I don’t want that to happen again to any student,” said Paris.

The Parnell’s daughter went before the school administration prior to the ceremony according to family members. The school responded to our request saying, “Ms. Hester explained to the daughter that the school has a floor-level designated handicapped accessible seating section for wheelchairs, walkers, and strollers.  According to the niece Mr. Parnell said he did not want to sit in the handicapped accessible section.”

The school did confirm with us that board member Roger Carroll was in touch with the family prior to the ceremony. They told us, “Mr. Carroll advised Ms. Parnell to talk to the school principal about her concern. Mr. Carroll also told the Parnell’s they could sit out of the designated handicapped section if they wanted but that if they were asked to move they would need to comply or otherwise leave graduation.”

We are still waiting to hear from more board members as Paris tells us the chairman ensured her that he would look into the graduation policies.