Monitoring situation

Members of the  Chattanooga Police Department, and Walker County schools superintendent Damon Raines (left), monitor the situation as thousands exited Memorial Auditorium following the Ridgeland High School graduation on May 22. (Messenger photo/ Matt Ledger)

A capacity crowd led to tense moments outside a Chattanooga event hall as high school graduates received diplomas inside.

On May 22, Ridgeland High School held it's annual commencement at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium in Chattanooga, something that has been a tradition for many years.

The auditorium’s main hall has a seating capacity of 3,862 and the Chattanooga Fire Marshall’s office monitors the number of occupants during each event.

"Last night was the largest graduating class we've had at Ridgeland in a few years,” Walker County Schools superintendent Damon Raines said. “But we still didn't see it as becoming an issue of handing out tickets, because we have had large graduating classes before.”

Concerns about exceeding the seating capacity had never prompted school officials to restrict attendance by issuing each graduate a limited number of tickets.

And, contrary to an inaccurate report broadcast by a Chattanooga television station, no student was prevented from entering and attending their own graduation.

"To my knowledge, there was no one who was a graduate that was kept outside," Raines said. "I know there was a story circulating about a person who did not fulfill the requirements of graduation. But as far as someone who was supposed to graduate, no one was left out."

One male student even completed the last requirements for graduation on Thursday morning — just five minutes before the noon deadline — and received his diploma last evening.

"I know that person graduated because he came up to both Mr. Brown and I, and hugged our necks after the graduation ceremony was over," Raines said.

Fourteen students, of the 287 eligible graduates, opted not to attend the commencement, officials said.

Seniors had been instructed during graduation practice to arrive at the auditorium no later than 5 p.m. and the vast majority complied, helping each other to adjust mortarboards as the graduates gathered one last time.

Four minutes prior to the start, officials with the event hall advised school officials to announce for people to fill in every seat.

The theater had opened its doors at 6:30 p.m. and steadily filled, something that had not occurred during previous years.

A few parents grumbled to Memorial Auditorium officials about other families saving seats for family members a mere 15 minutes before the scheduled graduation start.

Promptly at 7:30 p.m. faculty members ushered the Class of 2014 graduates through the hallways and past late-arriving family members.

Those 273 graduates beamed with excitement as they walked down the aisle to the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" and took their seats.

RHS principal Glen Brown spoke first, recounting the educational milestones that happened during the year.

At 7:53 Memorial auditorium texted Brown, notify him the building’s entrances had been closed, according to Raines.

With an estimated crowd of 200-300 people outside, Memorial Auditorium authorities decided it would be too disruptive to allow anyone else in, despite there being 42 empty seats in the faculty/handicapped section.

Four students, including Valedictorian Josh Perez and Salutatorian Jessica Sizemore, gave speeches reflecting on their class’ journey and the possibilities for the future.

One-by-one the seniors began crossing the stage and receiving diplomas before the large crowd that cheered each name as it was pronounced.

After two-thirds of the graduates had received diplomas, two Ridgeland faculty members notified school board member Mike Carruth, who was seated on stage, about the situation outside.

At the time, both the principal and superintendent were exchanging handshakes with graduates, unaware of the magnitude of the situation outside the building.

Likewise, those seated in the audience were unaware of the problem.

The increased size of the crowd became evident as the graduates and family members exited the hall and quickly overflowed onto McCallie Avenue.

Several squad cars from the Chattanooga Police Department were on the scene after the event, called due to the tension when family members began banging on doors — frustrated in their attempts to gain entrance — while the graduation occurred, according to a RHS faculty member.

Family members quickly flooded McCallie Avenue, blocking lanes of traffic as jubilant graduates searched for parents and embraced classmates.

As the families returned toward their vehicles, a six-year-old was reportedly struck by a truck in the 700 block of Houston Street.

According to eyewitness reports, the child was not in a cross walk or holding hands with a parent.

Both principal Brown and superintendent Raines stood outside the Memorial Auditorium for 45 minutes after the event, exchanging handshakes and congratulations with students but receiving no complaints or concerns from family members.

The school's broadcast journalism class set up video cameras to capture the commencement event.

Raines said he is thankful for the new concept, which was a test of future plans to live stream the event for family members that don't live locally. Now, it will be used to create DVD's for those family members that could not get into the auditorium.

Any parent that missed out on the commencement exercise can contact the school for further details on when that recording will be available.

"I know that (video) is not at all what they were expecting, but at least hopefully it will be some form of consolation in having missed the event," Raines said.

Principal Brown is having additional copies of the commencement program printed and plans to schedule a make-up date for those family members that missed out, and a second option of allowing that graduate to walk again during the summer school graduation for family and friends who didn't see the event.

Currently, school officials are aware of one graduate's family that was unable to enter and of two mothers who were unable to re-enter the facility once the ceremony began — one had returned to her car for a camera and another had stepped out for a cigarette.

This was the third RHS graduation the superintendent has attended.

"Even with a bit larger class, it had never been an issue in the past," Raines said. "There had always been a number of seats available by the time the program started."

School officials discussed solutions with Memorial Auditorium personnel afterward, and they suggested a 10 ticket limitation per student.

Another suggestion was to move all faculty members onto the stage, which will free more than 100 additional seats on the floor level.

Moving the RHS graduation to McKenzie Arena would be an expensive option, adding an additional $8,000 cost to the ceremony, according to Raines.

The choice of a Thursday graduation was due to a Friday night comedy event (Gary Owen) which had been scheduled for the Memorial Auditorium more than a year in advance.

School officials will assess the options and suggestions for next year's graduation, which may remain at Memorial Auditorium but with a specified allotment of tickets for each student.

"If we continue going to that venue, we are going to have to make that part of the plan," Raines said.