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Principal suspended after graduation flap

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Craig Harris, principal of SouthWest Edgecombe High School

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By AMELIA HARPER
Staff Writer

Thursday, June 15, 2017

An Edgecombe County principal has been suspended with pay pending an investigation into his handling of a graduation drama that has drawn national attention to SouthWest Edgecombe High School.

Craig Harris, the principal of SouthWest Edgecombe High School, was suspended by Edgecombe County Public Schools after he withheld a diploma last weekend from a senior who read his own speech at graduation instead of the one written by the administration.

The decision was revealed late Thursday, when the Rocky Mount Telegram issued a public records request concerning Harris’s fate after Marvin Wright, president of the SouthWest Edgecombe High School Class of 2017, failed to receive his diploma on graduation day. Harris reportedly withheld the diploma because Wright read his own five-minute speech from his cell phone at the end of the graduation ceremony instead of the short printed speech the administration had written and inserted in his diploma cover.

Edgecombe County Public Schools Superintendent John Farrelly did not comment on Harris’s status with the school system, saying only that the matter is still under investigation. However, he did say that the decision to withhold Wright’s diploma was wrong.

“I was there at the graduation ceremony, but I had no idea what happened afterward,” Farrelly told the Telegram. “The administration clearly overreacted in this situation. The content of the speech was fine. The administration should never have withheld the student’s diploma.”

Wright said he was told on graduation day that the speech was too long and that he failed to meet an approval deadline, information he said he had not been given before.

“I had worked really hard on my speech,” Wright said. “Before we went out, my fellow classmates kept saying, ‘They don’t know how we feel as seniors, so you need to read your speech.’ When I stood on the platform and saw them all nodding their heads, I knew what I had to do.”

Wright gave a deeply personal and inspirational speech that shared anecdotes about his — and his fellow seniors — high school careers. He also spoke eloquently about the road ahead.

“I am no expert in this journey we call life but we all have the ability to make a difference and to be that change the world needs,” Wright said. “The past 13 years have equipped us for a time as this to stand bold in who we are. So I say to my classmates, cherish these last few minutes we spend here and the memories we have created and get ready for the journey ahead.”

Some of the many people who followed Wright’s story on social media thought that Wright’s speech was pulled because he mentioned his gratitude to God in several parts of the speech. However, Wright told the Telegram that was not the reason.

“I know that is not true,” Wright said. “They gave out Bibles at the graduation.”

However, Wright said it was embarrassing to be the only member of his class to not receive his diploma that night.

“When I went to get my diploma after the graduation, I was told the principal took it,” Wright said. “We could not find the principal anywhere. One of the teachers told me that he was in his office with the door locked and he had told people to say he was gone.”

Wright finally received his diploma on Sunday when Principal Craig Harris came to his home with the diploma in hand.

“Mr. Harris never apologized or explained,” Wright said. “He just said he was told to give me my diploma and he said for my mom to call him if she had any questions.”

Since then, the superintendent’s office has offered apologies on behalf of the school district. However, Wright said he feels it is Harris and school counselor Shelton Langley who should have apologized. 

“They were really the ones who did this to me,” Wright said.

Wright is already moving on with his life. On Monday, he was sworn into the U.S. Navy and plans to begin his military career in October with the ultimate goal of getting financial help with his college education. He said he came forward about the graduation issue for one reason only.

“I just want to make sure they don’t do this to somebody else down the road,” Wright said.

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