ROCK HILL — A Winthrop University student arrested last week after he was accused of disturbing a high school graduation ceremony denies resisting police or causing a disturbance.
Claims that he yelled as his brother crossed the stage are false, he said.
Police say Jonathan Paul Simon, 20, was arrested because he yelled during Fort Mill High School’s graduation Friday afternoon, refused to comply with police commands and jerked away from an officer who tried arresting him. Simon, a junior studying mass communication, was charged with resisting police and trespassing, according to a Rock Hill police report. He was released from jail the same day on a more than $1,500 bond.
On Tuesday, Simon denied all of the accusations, saying his yell was more of a “distinctive ‘yes,’ ” as his brother, 18, walked onto the stage. About four minutes later, he said, an officer walked into the aisle and summoned him to step out of the auditorium. He denied police accounts that he “reluctantly complied,” stressing that he immediately got out of his chair when called and walked with the officer, a Rock Hill Police sergeant, into the hallway.
The officer, Simon said, told him he was trespassing. When Simon asked for clarification, the policeman “definitely became aggressive off the bat towards me.” Simon said he was unsure if the officer intended to escort him out of the coliseum or another spectator who had been sitting in front of him and yelling.
According to a Rock Hill police report, a Winthrop Police officer told the Rock Hill officer that Simon had been causing a disturbance. As Simon and the sergeant spoke, a police major arrived, the report states, and told Simon he had to leave. Police said Simon refused.
Simon said he didn’t refuse, but wanted further explanation about why he was being led away.
“Granted, I may have asked multiple times, but never once did I straight out refuse to leave the premise,” he said, “but I was definitely not refusing to leave … I was not being irate.”
The police report states Simon jerked away when an officer told him he was under arrest and instructed him to put his hands behind his back. Simon says the officer never told him he was under arrest, didn’t read him his Miranda rights and claims he did not jerk away, but likely jumped slightly because he was startled that cuffs were placed around his wrists.
“That’s just his interpretation,” said Rock Hill Police Executive Officer Mark Bollinger. “He was under arrest and he was told he was under arrest.” More, he said, police are not required to advise a suspect of his right to remain silent – often called Miranda rights – if officers don’t intend to interview the suspect. In Simon’s case, there was likely no need for further questioning.
Simon said he plans to fight the charges in court.
Assistant Winthrop Police Chief Ken Scoggins said Simon was not arrested because he yelled during the ceremony, but because he allegedly refused to leave. Scoggins said he spoke with both Rock Hill officers involved and they maintained that Simon would not cooperate with them.
“The school district ... sets the decorum they want,” Scoggins said. “We are just abiding by those wishes.”
For years, York County schools have attempted to maintain decorum at graduations by forbidding spectators from clapping, shouting, standing or taking pictures. Last month, school officials disseminated a letter to the community that was published in The Herald requesting spectators follow those requirements. It also warned that uniformed Rock Hill and Winthrop Police would be on duty to remove, and possibly charge, spectators who ignored the guidelines. In the past, the rules have drawn criticism, particularly from family members who want to support graduates.
Last Friday, Fort Mill High School Principal Dee Christopher instructed spectators to refrain from shouting or clapping before the ceremony began.
“We ask all participants at these ceremonies to support a respectful decorum, which includes silence amongst the audience and for all applause to be withheld until the end of the ceremony, thereby providing every graduate their opportunity to be clearly recognized and celebrated,” Fort Mill Schools Superintendent Chuck Epps wrote in an email.
In 2008, the district’s policies and eventual police action garnered national attention when eight people were arrested and charged for cheering at Fort Mill, Northwestern and York high school graduations. Those charges were dropped after the accused agreed to write letters of apology. Rock Hill defense attorney Harry Collins represented some of those defendants.
“Police made a big mistake in 2008 because they were arresting people for cheering,” he said. “What they’re doing now (is telling people) ‘you made a noise and you’ve got to leave.’ That’s a big difference (from 2008).”
Graduations, he said, are private ceremonies in a public place, therefore giving the schools room to make their own rules for attendance. But, he said, the schools cannot say, “ ‘OK policeman, we want you to arrest people for breaking our rules.’… That’s what they were doing in 2008.”
“The police can arrest you for breaking the law, but not for breaking rules by the school,” he added.
Jonathan McFadden • 803-329-4082