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Graduates force to pay

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HOUSTON (FOX 26) -

It's that time of year when seniors at Madison High school in the Houston Independent School District are thinking about that big day in June.

Shawanda Goffney is a parent at the school. She says, "I feel like my son has gone through school for 12 years and he has earned that right to walk across the stage without having to pay for it."

Goffney's son attends Madison and she says despite the senior's academic accomplishments she was still told he wouldn't be allowed to take part in commencement ceremonies on June 8th. That's if she didn't pay a special $125 senior celebration fee. That would be separate from the traditional senior fee of $62.50 which Goffney also paid.

Goffney says, "would he still be able to walk in the ceremonies if he didn't pay that fee, I was told no. He would be able to pick his diploma up two weeks after graduation."

Hundreds of parents may have been mislead by letters from Madison High School when it comes to that senior celebration fee.

These letters sent home to parents indicate the $125 fee is mandatory. One of the notices was signed by Madison Principal Sonja Williams.

That's despite HISD officials saying the fee is optional and students won't be prevented from walking at the Reliant if they didn't pay it. Now, parents like Goffney who paid the $125 fee plus a $25 late charge want their money back.

"I would like a refund because if it's optional and everyone does not have to pay I would like to receive a refund," says Williams.

A refund that could make a big difference with parents who have students attending the school. According to the Houston Association of Realtors 81% of the students zoned to Madison area economically disadvantaged...That's why $125 is a big deal.

Chris Tritico Fox 26's legal analyst says the fee crosses the line.

"It smacks of corruption and it smacks of theft," says Tritico.

What's also legally disturbing to tritico is one of the reasons for the $125 senior celebration fee. Some of the things the fee will pay for: Class T-shirts, commencement programs, then a second non-specific program and a church honorarium...Students forced to give money to a church in order to graduate?

Tritico says, "I think that's going to cause a First amendment issue....HISD could be sued over this."

In the meantime, we've learned Madison school officials were still telling some parents as early as Friday morning they still had to pay the senior celebration fee despite the district's position that it's optional...an option Goffney says she wish she would've had before she paid the money she couldn't afford.

"I would like to receive a refund," says Gofney.

HISD Statement: The principal will be addressing each parent individually. Again, this celebration fee was voted on by parents and students. It will not, however, prevent any student that is eligible to graduate from participating in their commencement ceremony. The ‘celebration fee' is for additional items aside from the cap and gown fee. The cap and gown fee is only $60 and the school will help families in need with those fees on a case by case basis.

Regards,

Denisse Cantu

HISD Media Relations Dept.

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