(First of a two-part series) A settlement which allows a moment of silence at Le Mars Community's graduation April 25 "lets us get back to what graduation is about and that is celebrating the accomplishments of our senior class," said Dr. Todd Wendt, superintendent of the school district.
Senior students voted in April to have a moment of silence during the graduation ceremony. Wendt later overruled the vote and seven students filed a federal lawsuit against the district and Wendt to get the 30 seconds of silence reinstated as part of the program.
A joint statement issued Friday, May 16, stated that the parties had resolved their concerns and that the moment of silence allows individuals to silently reflect, pray or meditate as they choose.
"The District strives to respect the right to free speech and freedom of religion while respecting Constitutional restrictions which prohibit the District from establishing religion or sponsoring religious activity," says the joint settlement announcement.
Zachary Krause, one of the seven students who filed the lawsuit with the aid of the American Family Association Law Center of Tupelo, Miss., said, "We didn't want it to go to court but we were willing to. We were standing up for what we believe in. It's the principle of the whole idea that the minority could rule on the majority."
Cody Gralapp agreed. "We never really wanted it to go to court but we were going to stand up for what we believed. We hope now we can move on and focus on our class' accomplishments and not on this controversy.
Like Krause, he referred to the majority vote of the seniors favoring the moment of silence.
"We felt like we had the right to reflect on our past years," Gralapp said.
Cassie Lange, like the others, said she was happy the lawsuit was over and happy about the outcome.
Lange said she was willing to become part of the group "because I wanted to stand up for what I thought was right and I wanted the majority to get the final say in the matter and not the minority."
Karen Plath, another of the group of seven, said she would probably be praying during the 30 seconds next Sunday but that no one has to.
"It's just because it was a majority vote. I just felt I was standing up for the whole class," she said.
However, for Michael Mapes and Tim Sitzmann, two opposing members of the Class of 2003, it wasn't a question of majority vs. minority; but much more than that.
They, too, said they felt they were standing up for others. They said they were standing up for those who were afraid to speak out because of how they might be seen.
"There were a lot of students coming in and telling us they didn't want it," said Mapes.
It was Sitzmann and Mapes who went to Dr. Wendt after the vote because they felt the other side of the story wasn't being heard. "We basically just told the school that some year, if they keep going with it, some student whose parents had enough money might sue the school," Sitzmann explained.
It was after that meeting that Wendt banned the moment of silence. The seven students who later filed suit went to Wendt to asked him to reverse his decision.
He chose not to reverse himself and explained Friday that his decision was made based on the facts as he knew them at the time.