There’ll be 47 fewer mortar boards being tossed into the air at Oak Lawn Community High School’s graduation ceremony this Wednesday. That’s how many students’ diplomas are being delayed because the school says they cheated on their community service hours.
Parents were informed last week that their children would not be allowed to participate in graduation exercises, nor receive their high school diplomas, because their child falsified documents stating he or she had completed the required number of community service hours.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t find out about it until the last minute,” said Dr. Michael Riordan, Dist. 229 superintendent and principal of Oak Lawn Community High School.
Since 2008, OLCHS students have been required to complete 24 hours of community service during their four years of high school, starting with that year’s incoming freshman class
“That’s six hours per year,” Riordan said. “We’ve had this in place going on six years. This is the fourth group of kids who’ve been required to meet this requirement.”
Riordan said the school maintains a list of local service organizations that accept student volunteers. If a student wants to volunteer somewhere else, the student is required to notify the school so the organization can be added to the school's list.
Earlier this year, students started turning in documentation stating they had volunteered at the Oak Lawn Park District’s Stony Creek Golf Course. When a school staff member received the documentation with the local golf course general manager's signature, she contacted the park district's volunteer director.
“The park district is on our site list,” Riordan said. “She was told that Stony Creek was okay. All of the signatures matched up. We thought everything was on the up and up.”
Last Thursday, the deadline for seniors to turn in service hours, school officials learned that the park district general manager’s signature had been forged.
“Some signatures turned in were different from the earlier ones,” Riordan said. “The general manager told school officials that he did not sign off on any students from Oak Lawn Community High School.”
Most of the 47 students who were caught acknowledged they had lied about volunteering for the golf course when questioned by school officials. According to Riordan, it was one student who was forging the general manager’s signature.
A quick decision was made to withhold students’ diplomas until they had completed the required community service hours, as well as deny their participation in the graduation ceremony. Riordan said there wasn’t time to convene a special school board meeting, but he kept board members “in the loop.”
“Participating in graduation ceremonies is a privilege, not a right,” he said. “We wish the kids had thought better. It’s a shame and not something we’re proud of. At the same time we need to uphold the integrity of the school and graduation. You cannot falsify documents and submit them whether its to your school, employer or the government.”
Max Erdakos admitted that his son bought a forged document from another student who was forging the general manager’s signature and then selling documents to other students.
“I don’t get a call until Friday that my son wasn’t graduating,” Erdakos said, who admits that his son was in the wrong. “Isn’t this a little severe? I know kids should be punished for it, but he made a mistake. All they’re doing is hurting the parents and grandparents.”
Erdakos said his son worked full time and completed the required credits for graduation in November. He was scheduled to participate in Wednesday’s graduation.
“I don’t think the punishment fits the crime,” Erdakos said, who thinks the students should still be allowed to participate in graduation exercises, but not get their diplomas until they complete the required hours.
“My son has been cutting grass for a disabled neighbor who is a vet and shoveled his snow and didn’t take a dime,” he said. “What better way to teach kids how to serve their community than by helping a disabled vet. This is killing my son because of how much it’s hurting his mother.”
Erdakos thinks the school's volunteer program should be discontinued because it violates students’ 13th Amendment rights, which prohibits “involuntary servitude unless ordered by court.”
Riordan understands the process is flawed and that the school needs to re-examine how it verifies students’ community service hours. The school board has also asked for clarification on the policy. He said the delay won’t affect students’ permanent records as long as they finish the required service hours.
“We have a feeling of empathy for the students and parents, it’s as much a consequence for parents as it is the kids,” Riordan said.