Fort Mill Times

Fort Mill 11 #8: Audience members arrested for cheering at graduation

More than 500 Fort Mill High School students graduated in June during a ceremony at Winthrop University 	that gained national attention 		after audience members were arrested for cheering.
More than 500 Fort Mill High School students graduated in June during a ceremony at Winthrop University that gained national attention after audience members were arrested for cheering.

ROCK HILL -- Among the crowd of family and friends who filed into Winthrop Coliseum in June for Fort Mill High School graduation ceremony were a few people who would end up making an early exit.

In handcuffs.

For the second year in a row, school officials made good on a guarantee that audience members caught cheering or otherwise shouting out before the end of the ceremony would be arrested. This time, after six people were removed by City of Rock Hill Police Department officers and charged with disorderly conduct, the incident made national headlines. Following the arrests, TV and radio news shows, Web sites and the blogosphere buzzed with accounts and opinions related to the event. Many of them referred to stories initially reported by the Fort Mill Times and its sister daily paper, The Herald.

Matthew Jones Sterling of Fort Mill, Jamie Ellen Hill of Knoxville, Tenn., Nathaniel Hill of Tega Cay, Joseph Anthony Reiriz of Fort Mill, Robert Anthony Massey of Clover and William Eric Anthony Massey of Fort Mill were all arrested.

District officials said the rule is in place to prevent loud cheers for one graduate from drowning out the reading of the next graduate's name. Attendees were warned verbally and in writing that loud celebrations during the presentation of diplomas were strictly prohibited.

Fort Mill High principal Dee Christopher stands by the policy.

"I do not foresee any changes in our decorum for our 2009 commencement," he said. "Every graduate deserves to have their name announced clearly and be seen as they walk across the stage. We are in contract with Winthrop University and will have enough officers to cover the ceremony."

In 2007, three people were arrested at the Fort Mill ceremony for cheering.

William Massey, himself a Fort Mill High grad, said he simply "clapped and gave a little whoop" when his fiancee's name was called. Massey said there were warnings before the ceremony but none that said he could be arrested.

Five of the six people arrested requested a jury trial. Those five hired Rock Hill attorney Harry Collins, who filed a motion to dismiss the charges before the cases reached a courtroom.

"These people are innocent," Collins said.

Collins said the charges should be dropped because the suspects' actions do not fall under the public disorderly conduct statute and that disorderly conduct law applies to people using foul language, being grossly intoxicated in public or exhibiting obscene behavior.

"It doesn't encompass making a cheer or saying 'hurrah' once or twice," Collins said. "If they did anything wrong, it was violating a school policy. ... They didn't break any laws."

In the end, charges were dropped after most of the suspects made formal apologies.

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