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Prague (OK) High School Principal David Smith

Prague, Oklahoma is a quiet town of fewer than 2,200 people, located about an hour east of Oklahoma City. The school district proudly calls itself “the home of the Red Devils,” a fact evidenced by the district's official school logos: a snarling Satan for the high school; a mischievous, demonic imp for the middle and elementary schools. Of all the things that might raise eyebrows in such a Hades-happy hamlet, saying “hell” would figure to be pretty low on the list. Yet, that's exactly what happened when the high school's valedictorian, Kaitlin Nootbaar, uttered that word in her commencement speech.

Nootbaar was describing to her fellow classmates and their guests how she had initially wanted to be a nurse, then a veterinarian, but when asked now, could only reply: “How the hell should I know? I've changed my mind so many times.” Principal Smith, who had previously approved an advance copy of Nootbaar's speech that used “heck” instead of “hell,” was so angered by the switch that when the straight-A student stopped by to pick up her diploma last August, he refused to release it to her until she wrote a formal letter of apology to him, the school board, and all of her teachers. Kaitlin and her parents felt that she had done nothing deserving of an apology and complained to the School Board. Superintendant Rick Martin sided with Smith, stating that “the high school principal requested a private apology for her transgression before releasing her diploma. His request was both reasonable and in keeping with established federal case law interpreting the First Amendment.”

Superintendent Martin's assessment of constitutional law is debatable. But even if he were correct, the withholding of Nootbaar's diploma would still be deserving of a Muzzle. It is difficult to see how the use of the word “hell” in a speech at this school—where the mascot is El Diablo himself and the students are known as the Red Devils—could be called inappropriate. Nootbaar's only sin was departing from her approved script. If Principal Smith felt that such a minor transgression nevertheless warranted some sort of reprimand, he could have done so by any number of less drastic means. Instead, Smith elected to deny the school's best academic student the fruits of four year's hard work.

High school graduation is a watershed event in the lives of most students. Unfortunately, Kaitlin's Nootbaar's memories of her graduation will be forever clouded by the fact she was not given her diploma. David Smith may be one hell heck of a principal, but his decision to hold Kaitlin Nootbaar's diploma hostage was an egregious overreaction—one that earns him a 2013 Jefferson Muzzle.

Supplemental Materials (supplied by NowComment)

Coverage by local TV station KFOR:

DMU Timestamp: March 28, 2013 23:38

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