Shawn Vega, 18, is among those who have been barred a few seniors from taking part in commencement ceremonies at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School because of repeated tardiness and absence from school.
Shawn Vega, 18, is among those who have been barred a few seniors from taking part in commencement ceremonies at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School because of repeated tardiness and absence from school. (HANDOUT)

A local Jesuit high school's policy that will bar a few seniors from taking part in commencement ceremonies because of repeated tardiness and absence from school has prompted a debate about whether the punishment is more punitive than instructive.

Administrators at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a college preparatory school in Upper Fells Point, say the no-nonsense decision is a matter of academic policy — and principle.

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The students and their advocates, including a civil rights organization and a City Council member, disagree.

The school, whose stated mission is "empowering students to succeed in college, work, and life," mostly serves children from low-income families. Its students have a 100 percent college acceptance rate.

"It's our belief and my belief that attending school regularly is an important aspect of the academic experience," said Bill Heiser, the school's president. "We're proud they're going to be graduating ... but when students aren't able to meet the standards, quite honestly, we don't water down the standards."

The students and their supporters argue that the affected students have overcome challenges big and small and deserve to take part in an important rite of passage.

They also note that the students have completed their coursework and have passing grades and, as result, should not be singled out from the rest of the senior class that will graduate June 18.

"They met the requirements of the education department to graduate," said Gerald Stansbury, president of the NAACP Maryland State Conference. "It's just a punishment that doesn't sound fair to me. We need to do everything we can to support our kids."

Shawn Vega, 18, is one of the students at the center of the disagreement. He rises between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. to prepare for school and catches a public bus at 6:30 a.m. in his Belair-Edison neighborhood. He then transfers to another bus that drops him near Cristo Rey. School starts at 7:45 a.m. sharp, but Vega sometimes arrived a few minutes later — 24 times, in fact.

On occasion, Vega needed to walk the 3 miles to school when his family did not have money to pay for the bus, which costs about $20 per week, he said.

The bus commute takes 45 minutes when everything goes smoothly, Vega said, but sometimes the buses run late or break down. Then there are other unplanned incidents that can slow his commute, he said.

School policy does not allow students who have been tardy 20 or more times in the school year to walk in the graduation procession, Heiser said. Being late by even a minute counts as a tardy according to the policy, he said.

Heiser declined to say how many students will not participate, citing privacy concerns, but confirmed there was more than one.

Vega said there are three additional graduates in his position.

Stansbury was so bothered by the policy that he called Heiser, but Heiser refused to budge.

Low-income city youths like Vega should be rewarded for graduating, not punished for technicalities, Stansbury said.

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"They overcame all of that and were able to finish and to get their grades," he said. "They earned that privilege to walk across the stage and receive a diploma."

Vega said he earned a 3.4 grade-point average last semester and does not have any academic or behavioral issues in the school. He will attend Towson University in the fall to study business.

Vega said his transportation problems have been long running and out of his control. During his freshman year, he relied on one of three shuttle buses run by the school. However, the school eliminated two buses before his sophomore year, keeping one that only goes to West Baltimore, not to his neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore.

He said when he discussed his problems with the principal and the former school president during sophomore year, they talked about providing him with a bus pass, but the plan fell through.

City Council member Brandon Scott learned about the controversy this week and called the school principal, Tom Malone, who declined to comment.

Scott said he believes the policy contradicts the school's larger mission.

"If you're embracing low-income students, you have to understand the totality of what that means," he said. "This isn't about the kid's academics, it's not about his behavior, it's about him being late to school. It just doesn't bear out to the common-sense test."

Vega's mother, Miriam Carrion, is not upset about the punishment. Her son knew the cost of being late and should have planned accordingly, she said.

"I'm OK with it because he's still graduating and getting his diploma," Carrion said. "He didn't get the honor to walk across that stage because he failed his peers."

Vega said he takes responsibility for his role but thinks the punishment does not fit the infraction.

"We did get ourselves into this position. We do take ownership over what we've done, so it's all right if we don't get to walk," Vega said. "But we want to bring awareness to what the school is doing and continue this battle. … If I walk or I don't walk, that's not going to change the fact that this policy needs to be changed."

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