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Michelle Obama’s planned attendance at Kansas high school graduation sparks criticism

First lady Michelle Obama speaks at a forum with high school students at Howard University on Thursday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

A Kansas high school commencement featuring first lady Michelle Obama has sparked criticism, with students and parents complaining that space might be limited and politics might be in full view on a day meant to honor students, according to a news report.

The speech, set for May 17, is tied to the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown vs. Board of Education, brought against Topeka, Kansas, by a group of African American parents.

A spokesman for the school district said families and students were worried about whether the first lady’s presence would limit the number of tickets for the event, set for an 8,000-seat arena.

“It’s more about that they can’t get their entire family in and they have to change some arrangements for parties. That’s what’s causing the concern,” said Ron Harbaugh, spokesman for the Topeka Kansas school district. “It’s not that they dislike their speaker. They are excited about the having the first lady, and overall it’s been very positive.”

The White House referred all questions to Harbaugh.

Harbaugh said that there had been “rumors” that students would only be allowed four tickets, but the goal now is to have seniors have at least six, although the planning is still underway, after a Friday night meeting on the commencement.

Parents will still hear their child’s name called as they cross the stage, and each high school will hold a separate day that will include graduation traditions

Meantime, according to an Associated Press story, students started a petition Thursday evening, concerned about access to the graduation.

“People think it’s a great opportunity, but it’s the graduates’ time. They are getting that diploma that they worked so hard for,” Taylor Gifford, 18, who started the online petition, told the Associated Press. “Families are feeling that they are being cheated out of the loved ones special day.”

The petition has roughly 2,000 speakers as of Sunday afternoon and states in part:

We are honored to have the First Lady speak at commencement and the student body was literally crying and jumping for joy when the news was announced and we are in no way shape or form ungrateful for what the Board has done for us.

There are problems that come with the combining of the commencements. First of all, for most families in 501, money is short and we have spent hundreds of dollars buying graduation announcements that are now incorrect. The district has stated they will not refund this. Topeka High School’s graduation on its own takes approximately two and a half hours. The combining of five high schools will increase that to about six hours. With increased security the total time will be brought up to eight hours. Secondly, families have many people coming from states away taking sick leave to see the graduation. They will come to Topeka, only to find that they cannot be involved. Those with divorced families have to choose which side of the family they want to invite, this doesn’t even include siblings.

The first lady is scheduled to deliver several  commencement addresses this spring, and this year will speak at DC College Access Program in June and Dillard University, a historically black university in New Orleans in May.

The recent criticism brings to mind a similar backlash in 2009, when a back-to-school speech by President Obama was also criticized, mainly by conservatives.

Harbaugh said that he didn’t expect a political speech from Michelle Obama, who in fact, rarely gives overtly political speeches, and said that students and their families should expect an inspirational speech.

“These kids will always remember who their graduation speaker was,” he said.

Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.

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