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Principal cuts off Wharton salutatorian in middle of graduation speech

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Published:   |   Updated: June 11, 2013 at 03:59 PM

Wharton High salutatorian Harold Shaw Jr. spent weeks writing a graduation speech he hoped would inspire his classmates to pursue their lifelong dreams.

Unfortunately, his farewell address to the Wharton Class of 2013 will likely be remembered more for the remarks he didn't get a chance to make.

Wharton Principal Brad Woods pulled the plug on Shaw about halfway through his speech at the graduation ceremony in the Florida State Fairgrounds' Expo Hall on Monday.

Shaw, who graduated with a 7.31 grade point average, was forced to sit down and did not receive his diploma at the ceremony like the other graduates.

He was asked to leave the Expo Hall after the graduation, Shaw said. He was escorted out by two Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies who worked security at the event.

Though he was allowed to pick up his diploma at Wharton two days later, Shaw, 17, is still not sure why he was cut off.

He described the principal's actions as spiteful and embarrassing.

Shaw believes it may be retaliation for a short film he produced and posted on his personal Facebook page to draw attention what he described as unsanitary conditions in the boys' bathrooms at the high school.

"I think it's revenge," Shaw said during an interview at his attorney's office Wednesday.

Woods, who declined to comment, asked a reporter to contact the Hillsborough County School District's communications office for a statement.

Woods directed Shaw's microphone be shut off because he had diverted from his speech, Hillsborough County schools spokesman Stephen Hegarty said. It was a decision the principal made to keep the ceremony on track, he said.

Shaw and his attorney Tom Parnell said Shaw did not stray from the prepared address.

"I watched the video and read the speech," Parnell said. "It was fantastic.

"He didn't go off topic; he just stumbled a little."

Shaw, who graduated second in a senior class of 578 students, said his pre-approved speech was the third draft he had written since April.

The first draft, which included a reference to the unsanitary restroom conditions, was rejected, Shaw said. He was asked to make changes in a second draft. The final draft submitted in mid-May was approved.

On May 21 Shaw posted a 3 minute video on his Facebook page to draw attention to the bathroom conditions at Wharton. The video clip highlighted bathrooms with broken toilet paper dispensers and toilets without seats.

Shaw said Woods told him to take down the online video if he wanted to give his salutatory address at graduation and he complied.

Woods said that was not the case, Hegarty said.

On Monday afternoon, Shaw's family and friends were in the crowd with a camera to videotape Shaw's address.

The students applauded and cheered intermittently while Shaw in a deep, loud voice delivered his speech.

Woods was seated on stage next to Hillsborough County Schools Superintendant Mary Ellen Elia, several school board members and other Wharton administrators. As Shaw reached the midway portion of his speech, Woods stood up and made a slashing motion with his hand to shut off the mike.

Woods stepped to an adjacent lectern, thanked Shaw, made a comment about respecting the right of free speech then asked Wharton valedictorian Allyson Bell to begin her address.

Shaw said he would like Woods to issue a public apology.

Shaw worked for four years to obtain the second highest GPA at Wharton High School to earn the right to give the speech, Parnell said.

"Mr. Woods' action was reprehensible," he said. "Harold will never get back that day or the memories he should have experienced."

Parnell said he planned to consult with Shaw's parents, Harold and Raquel Shaw.

"It's clear his civil rights have been violated," Parnell said. "We will meet with the family to determine what the next step will be."

kknight@tampatrib.com

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