PHILADELPHIA - Four students at Philadelphia High School for Girls claim they were denied their diplomas on stage at graduation after their expressions of excitement drew reactions from the audience.
Hafsah Abdur Rahman danced across the stage at the Kimmel Center when she heard her name called during last Friday's graduation ceremony, only to be denied her diploma by the principal.
"I was really embarrassed, I didn't think she was not going to give me my diploma because I didn't think I broke any rules," Hafsah said.
The graduates families were told not to cheer and hold their applause until the end of the ceremony. Hafsah's family in the crowd respected the rules, but her dance moves elicited a reaction.
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"Miss Mesi said she didn't give me my diploma because the crowd chuckled," Hafsah told FOX 29's Dawn Timmeney.
Hafsah said the outburst of joy was brought on by reaching the end of a tumultuous four-year high school career that was partly ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"After four years of high school, all these girls went through a lot - through COVID, mentally, physically - and you just humiliate them," Hafsah's mother Jasmine Reid said.
Hafsah feels she had one of life's most memorable moments unnecessarily stolen. The 17-year-old was doubly upset because she wanted the graduation to commemorate her sister who at 15-years-old was killed by a stray bullet in 2014.
"I dedicated this to her because she was never able to graduate," Hafsah said. "You took that moment that I will never be able to get back again."
Saleemah Burch, 18, similarly had her moment stolen after she was also denied her diploma by the school principal for making a gesture that caused a reaction from the audience.
"When they called Saleemah's name, my younger son, we had our hands together, and we just put our hands in the air," Saleemah's mother, Delsa Burch, said. "No one made a noise."
The students received their diplomas well after the ceremony, but the students and their family's say that it hardly makes up for the embarrassment and humiliation they endured.
"My heart just broke for my daughter, it just broke," Delsa said. "I wanted this to be the best day of her young life, and it turned out to be one of the worst."
In a statement, the Philadelphia School District said it "does not condone the withholding of earned diplomas based on family members cheering for their graduates."
"We apologize to all the families and graduates who were impacted and are further looking into this matter to avoid it happening in the future," the district said.