Union County sheriff says he won’t interfere with in-person graduation plans

Union County School Board votes to host traditional graduation

UNION COUNTY, N.C. (WBTV) - The Union County School Board voted to host traditional graduation ceremonies while practicing social distancing--- despite North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s order that prohibits them.

The Union County School Board called an emergency board meeting Thursday night to discuss plans for graduation.

Chairperson Melissa Merrell opened the meeting by saying the board was under the impression that graduations were allowed under Cooper’s Phase 2 executive order because it said educational institutions were exempt from the rule that limits outdoor mass gatherings to 25 people.

But board members claim the governor later backtracked—

Under a frequently asked questions page on the governor’s website--- it says the exemption was not intended for events like graduation ceremonies.

“Obviously we have a terrible lack of leadership from the governor of our state,” school board member Gary Sides said. "We’re trying to fumble through and not deprive these kids of one of the most important events of their life. "

“Gov. Cooper is not allowing us to do the things we would normally do for our students,” Vice Chair Kathy Heintel said. "And I call for the people to ask him why he’s not allowing us to do this.

Board Member Gary Sides issued a motion to host face-to-face graduations outside at Union County School stadiums while practicing social distancing, which would violate Governor Cooper’s Phase 2 order.

“I don’t like the governor’s order at all,” board member Christina Helms said. “I think they’re ridiculous and I’m appalled by him right now. But I think it’s a good example for our students that you might not like the law but you need to obey it.”

“We need to abide by the governor’s orders,” board member Joseph Morreale said. “While we don’t agree with them we still need to abide by them. And I’m not willing to sit in jail to host a traditional graduation.”

The motion narrowly passed in a 5-4 vote.

But discussions continued to explore back-up plans like hosting graduation in South Carolina or breaking up graduations into small groups that honor the governor’s order.

Violating the governor’s order is a class 2 misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Chairperson Merrell says it would likely amount $11,000 fine because there are 11 high schools in the district.

Friday, Union County Sheriff Eddie Cathey said he would not interfere with the school board’s plans to carry out an in-person graduation.

“Members of the Union County School Board are duly elected officials by the citizens of Union County. We respect and support their authority and will not interfere with any decision approved by the Board," Cathey said.

Pete Hovanec, a spokesman for the Monroe Police Department, says he hasn’t seen specific plans for the event.

“Since we don’t know what the exact plans are and where, we cannot speak to what, if any, response we would have,” he said.

WBTV contacted the Union County Health Department to see what guidance was given to the school board regarding in person ceremonies. A spokesperson for the county responded with:

“Public Health recommendations to the Board of Education have been to follow guidance from the NC Department of Public Instruction for graduation ceremonies, in compliance with the Governor’s Executive Order.”

Nikki Henton is the mother of a graduating senior in Union County Schools. She was hopeful the board would find a way to host graduation while abiding by the governor’s order.

“Anson County last Saturday did a class A job,” Henton said. “Yes, they had to stay in their car and do the whole social distancing but those parents got to see their child get their diploma. And it was the whole class able to celebrate together.”

Other parents of graduating seniors were pleased with the board’s decision.

“It’s a hard decision I certainly wouldn’t want their job, but I’m extremely happy they voted the way they did,” Lesley Purser said. “I know I have an extremely happy daughter who cant wait to graduate with her friends. And she has worked really hard for 13 years and they deserve this.”

Participating in graduation is voluntary for students. WBTV followed-up with Chairwoman Melissa Merrell after Thursday night’s board meeting.

“We have consulted with our local Board Attorney and outside counsel who do not anticipate fines, especially given the Sheriff’s support. The County Manager and Health Director stated last week they will not be telling us how to hold our graduations. UCPS will “strongly encourage individuals to maintain at least 6 feet social distancing” and anyone with a compromised immune system should not attend and watch via live-stream. We are more than willing to deliver a student’s diploma to their home or mail. We have exceptional high school principals that will meet the needs of their students,” Merrell said in response to one question.

The board will meet again Tuesday night where more details about graduation are expected.

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