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Like most other graduating classes across the country, students at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, California, weren’t allowed to hold a traditional graduation ceremony because of coronavirus restrictions. So the school held a drive-thru ceremony on June 11 in which principal Ben Dale handed out diplomas to nearly 680 students as they drove up to campus in their own cars.
But after the official celebration that promoted social distancing — graduates were given masks decorated in their school’s colors — hundreds of students took part in an unsanctioned march from Hermosa Beach to Manhattan Beach as crowds of parents gathered together to take photos, clearly violating coronavirus guidelines from the CDC and causing an uproar in the community on social media.
The criticisms came on two fronts: that parents and students so flagrantly disregarded social distancing measures, and that the march of almost all white upper-middle-class teenagers came amid a surge of Black Lives Matter demonstrations against anti-Black racism and police brutality.
Popular stationery and planner designer Erin Condren apologized for her role in helping her children organize the event when people started to leave comments on her company’s social media posts. In a lengthy Instagram caption, Condren condemned the fact that “the event quickly got out of control ... which is unacceptable in a pandemic.”
She also said the graduation walk "was in no way registered, associated with, or guised as a BLM protest,” although the idea for Mira Costa High School’s predominantly white graduating class to walk together between beaches was inspired by her daughter’s participation in a Black Lives Matter protest.
“The idea for this walk happened when my daughter took part in a Black Lives Matter protest a few weeks ago (a protest which saw almost all participants wearing masks) and saw it as a deeply-moving event that made a lasting impact,” she wrote. “I understand that many are rightfully offended by this event and I am deeply sorry. I am dedicated to learning and growing through my mistakes and educating my kids along the way.”
Local photographer Richard Podgurski captured photos from the event that caused a stir on social media. He told BuzzFeed News he could see how criticism about the lack of social distancing was warranted, but he doesn’t think it’s fair to say “the students were mocking the Black Lives Matter movement by marching,” calling those who found the march insensitive “keyboard Karens.”
“It was admittedly insensitive in extremely sensitive times. It was the perfect rage bait for someone to take something that was purely just a graduation walk and morph it into something that it wasn’t,” Podgurski said. “Because we are a privileged community, people are so up in arms about anything somebody in this community does that seems insensitive. There was no premeditated disposition of mocking anyone or anything negative.”
But the controversy has left the community divided on its response to criticism around the graduation march. Stacy Cabrera, an English teacher at Mira Costa High School, told BuzzFeed News she was “incredibly disheartened” to see photos online of students disregarding social distancing, especially after working so hard at the end of this school year to make sure they were learning safely from a distance.
“This all comes poignantly as well at a time when our school district, parents, and teachers are in discussions about what school will 'look like' in the fall,” Cabrera said. “While students may be willing to risk themselves and even their immediate families and friends, this doesn't make me feel very safe about returning in the fall.”
Shawn Chen, another English teacher and parent of a graduating senior, echoed Cabrera’s concerns about being required to go back to school in the fall with students who aren’t properly social distancing. She also agrees with the criticism about the march being insensitive.
“In the context of the Black Lives Matter march that happened [in Hermosa Beach] the week before, I think there’s a lot of legitimate concerns conflating these two events, as if access to privilege is somehow a right that’s on the same level as the Black Lives Matter movement,” Chen told BuzzFeed News.
Graduating senior Julia DiGregorio told BuzzFeed News she didn’t attend the unofficial march because she had anxiety about the virus and wasn’t confident her classmates would follow CDC guidelines and social distancing rules. There was discussion in the class group chat about the potential risks ahead of time, but DiGregorio said she was shot down by some of her classmates.
Now that criticism has made its way outside of the community, DiGregorio said she hopes the event organizers see this as a learning opportunity.
“Living here in Manhattan Beach, it’s easy to think that when we have a graduation we should be able to party and we should be able to celebrate because people are rich and white — and so what if stuff is happening around the world to people around the world who aren’t us?” she said. “But this could be an awesome check on everyone’s privilege, including mine, and an awesome reason for anyone who went to the event to focus on movements that are happening outside of our own lives. A lot of people might think that graduation is the most important thing that’s happening right now, and it really isn’t.”