Boos, jeers greet commencement speaker DeVos
BY ANDREAS BUTLER
Lexis Melo was one of about 300 students who graduated from Bethune-Cookman University on Wednesday afternoon. Prior to the commencement ceremony, she summed up the thoughts of many of her fellow graduates.
Just before entering the Ocean Center for B-CU’s noon commencement ceremony, Melo told the Daytona Times, “As a graduate who majored in elementary education, I just felt that having (U.S. Education Secretary Betsy) DeVos as our commencement speaker doesn’t represent what our university or education represents as a whole.”
Melos said she was one of more than 8,400 who supported an online petition on Change.org demanding that Devos not give the address at Wednesday’s graduation.
Turned their backs
During the graduation, many B-CU students literally gave DeVos the cold shoulder.
The boos were loud as DeVos was awarded an honorary doctorate and throughout her keynotes address. Graduates stood and turned their backs to her as she spoke. The boos and jeers during her speech were loud and relentless.
At the start of the speech, B-CU President Dr. Edison Jackson failed in his efforts to quiet the students.
“If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go,’’ he told the students.
They kept standing.
The announcement that DeVos, a strong proponent for school choice, would be the speaker was met with marches, rallies from students, alumni, the NAACP, statewide educators and other community organizations over the past week.
DeVos was criticized for statements she made after HBCU leaders visited President Trump at the White House.
Her statement read, in part, “HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality.”
At a press conference before Wednesday’s graduation, B-CU officials explained to the media that the invite was an effort to initiate dialogue with the secretary and introduce her to HBCUs.
‘Not for us’
Graduating seniors Jasmine Johnson and Evelyn McClaine are students who spoke up and participated in marches and rallies.
Both spoke with the Daytona Times on Tuesday during a march the day before graduation.
“I decided to protest because I felt like it was unfair for the graduates and university have a person come to our commencement and speak on a subject that she has no experience on, “McClaine said.
“DeVos has no experience in the educational field. Her views on education and HBCUs are appalling. Why bring someone here who is not for us? The graduating class worked so hard and to have someone like this come to our graduation and speak to us about something she has never been through is a slap in the face.’’
Johnson responded, “I decided to come out and protest. I protested at graduation. I marched on Tuesday and dropped off the petitions for Secretary DeVos not to speak at graduation. I wanted my voice to be heard.”
Johnson and McClaine both didn’t fear any retaliation from the school for protesting. There were reports that students were told there would be retaliation by the school if they participated in protests.
The Volusia County/Daytona Beach NAACP, said the civil rights organization was ready to support the students with legal help if the school retaliated.
The local and state NAACP also are calling for the resignation of Jackson and B-CU Board Chair Joe Petrock.
B-CU released a statement on Monday stating that President Edison Jackson and the administration supports the First Amendment rights of its students.
“We have not and will not seek to chill the free speech of our students and faculty; as we support the free exchange of alternative ideas in all academic efforts. Commencement is an occasion that celebrates the best of our students and we have always endeavored to ensure that it is considered a sacred and reverent ceremony. We uphold existing policies and procedures to protect the integrity of our commencement exercises and will continue to do so during Secretary DeVos’ visit.’’
‘I know my rights’
Johnson reflected, “Students felt as, Oh God, they will take away my degree, hold my grades and letters as well as ban organizations from campus. There were even talks that students would be fined. Many students don’t know their rights and that the school can’t legally do that. I know my rights.’’
McClaine added, “I feel that the student body has a voice and needs to be heard and if we feel like something is not fair or thrown against us for no good, we have a right to speak out. We as students at Bethune-Cookman University are not going to lay down. We are going to speak up and let our voices be heard.”
DeVos offers support
In Wednesday’s speech, DeVos tried to assure the graduates that she was at the Ocean Center to celebrate their success.
“I am here to celebrate you and all of your achievements. We are all here to applaud your perseverance and to encourage each of you to keep working to reach your full potential,” she said.
“And I’m here to demonstrate, in the most tangible way I know how, that I and the entire Administration are fully committed to your success and to the success of every student across this great country.”
In a statement released Wednesday night by the Department of Education, DeVos said she was grateful for the opportunity to address the graduates and to show her respect to the legacy of B-CU founder, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune.
“One of the hallmarks of higher education, and of democracy, is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom we disagree,’’ the statement read. “I have respect for all those who attended, including those who demonstrated their disagreement with me. While we may share differing points of view, my visit and dialogue with students leaves me encouraged and committed to supporting HBCUs.”