Judge explains why she officiated socially distant graduation ceremony for 2 high school seniors she'd never met before

Judge Wanda C. Jones stands proudly with high school seniors Jalen McMillian (L) and Markel Glaspie (R) after officiating their graduation. (Photo: LaKishia McMillian)

A Cleveland judge volunteered to plan a graduation ceremony for two high school students she didn’t know to encourage them to “make a difference” in the world.

Judge Wanda C. Jones of the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas recently came across a social media post by a Euclid mom named LaKishia McMillian who expressed disappointment that her son Jalen would not have a traditional graduation ceremony due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“What struck me was that for a lot of students, [a high school diploma] is going to be their highest level of education,” Jones tells Yahoo Life, “and it is important, especially nowadays where the message is Black Lives Matter. How else do we show students that their lives matter if we don’t acknowledge their accomplishments?”

Jones knows firsthand the importance of representation as she is one of four black female judges on the General Division Bench, which is a first in the county’s history. So she reached out to McMillian and offered to help organize a graduation ceremony for Jalen.

McMillian tells Yahoo Life that she was overwhelmed and grateful to receive Jones’s message. “This gesture was totally a blessing that I was not expecting.”

McMillian’s son had a rough few years of high school as he struggled to concentrate. The three-sport athlete also tore his achilles tendon during a championship baseball game and was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

“He had so many unanswered questions and struggled with depression and just accepting his diagnoses,” she tells Yahoo Life. “And of course, COVID-19 hit us, [so] he had to complete his senior year at home. Surprisingly, he did better with homeschooling than he did in school, finishing the quarter with a GPA of 3.8 and overall GPA 3.1,”

McMillian excitedly contacted LaShunda Washington, whose son Markel attends Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School with Jalen, and invited him to the ceremony. Washington tells Yahoo Life that Markel also found it tough to deal with the unconventional end of school.

“He was hurt,” Washington says. “He worked very hard to get to this point...”

The graduation, which followed social distance rules, was held at a local park Saturday with Jones officiating in her judicial robe and a face shield. In a Facebook video shared by McMillian, both teens walked down a red carpet wearing a cap and gown to the song “Pomp and Circumstance.” Jones handed them diplomas and spoke to them directly.

“I know the words usually come first, but I want to say it was a pleasure and I have been looking forward to this for two weeks to be able to see two young African-American men going off to Kent State University and I’m very proud of you,” she said in the video.

McMillian tells Yahoo Life, “This was an opportunity to celebrate two black men in a positive light and not because they have succumbed to police brutality or because they were killed by someone, but because they have overcome many odds and made it. They can proudly call themselves high school graduates.”

Lakishia McMillian beams with pride as her son Jalen holds up his high school diploma. (Photo: LaKishia McMillian)


Markel Glaspie holds up his high school diploma as his mother LaShunda Washington (L) smiles proudly. (Photo: LaShunda Washington)

Jones says she hopes that Markel and Jalen are able to pay it forward one day. “....People that don’t even know [the boys] are proud of them — and I was proud of them,” she says. “...I told them ‘no pressure, but the community is depending on you’ ... to further their education and make an impact.”

The judge plans on keeping in touch with McMillian and Washington, and maybe attend their college graduations.

Both Markel and Jalen will attend Kent State University in the fall with Markel pursuing a degree in sports broadcasting, and Jalen majoring in sports management.

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