PRAGUE — David Nootbaar said it's sadly ironic that his daughter, Kaitlin, was denied her diploma for saying “hell” in her valedictorian speech for Prague High School, where the mascot is the Red Devil.
“In church on Sunday they say ‘hell' at least four times,” Nootbaar said, standing across from the school district's office, which includes an electronic marquee showing a small demon holding a pitchfork.
The story of a school withholding a valedictorian's diploma received international media attention Monday, and Kaitlin Nootbaar was bombarded with supportive messages on Facebook, as well as friend requests.
“First off, I would like to thank everyone who is backing me on this, especially my friends and family. And to those who don't agree with me, that is fine also. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” she wrote in a Facebook post Monday.
David Nootbaar said his daughter used the word in reference to not knowing what she was going to do after graduation. “Who the hell knows?”
Diplomas are largely symbolic. Academic transcripts showing completed courses, however, can be essential, and the state doesn't empower schools to withhold them.
David Nootbaar said the district has turned over his daughter's transcript, and she started her first day Monday at Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford on a full-ride scholarship.
School chief's response
Still, the Prague School District's handbook indicates the district can withhold diplomas, and — contrary to state law — transcripts for unpaid fines or outstanding debts.
It states nothing about inappropriate behavior during commencement but does require that students participate in commencement exercises.
Rick Martin, superintendent of the district, located about 60 miles east of Oklahoma City, issued a statement: “Speakers are allowed significant freedom in their remarks, but all speeches must be approved in advance as being appropriate for graduation exercises. In this case, Ms. Nootbar prepared an appropriate speech, which was approved by the high school principal. Unfortunately she did not present the speech as written and used language that was inappropriate for a graduation exercise.”
He misspelled Nootbaar's name in the statement.
Martin said the principal requested a private apology from Kaitlin Nootbaar for her transgression before releasing her diploma.
David Nootbaar said he wouldn't let his daughter apologize for what he said is clearly a matter of free speech.
“I was very proud of it,” her father said. “I think she did a wonderful job, and she didn't even want to give a speech.”
Martin said that the principal's request was reasonable and “in keeping with established federal case law interpreting the First Amendment.”
Martin said he hopes the family will contact him privately so the matter may be resolved.
However, David Nootbaar said the school district wouldn't return his telephone call.
“They won't answer anybody's calls,” he said. “They won't talk to anybody.”
Kaitlin Nootbaar also said on her Facebook page that she loved Prague.
“I don't hate the school either, the teachers have always been great!” she wrote. “I don't feel that the whole town should suffer from the mistakes of a few.”