WHEN SOME PARENTS called last week to complain that their kids wouldn't receive their diplomas on stage at Cardinal Dougherty High School's graduation today, I couldn't imagine what the problem could be.

Apparently, I don't have much of an imagination.

Graduations, it seems, are no longer somber events that usher young people into the world of work or higher education.

They're more like Eagles' game-day parties.

"Last year, Bishop [Robert] McGinnis had to ask the students' families several times to get back in their seats," says Dougherty's president, Father Carl Janicki, of the 2007 ceremonies. "This was in the cathedral."

Things were no better in 2006, when Bishop John McFadden had to admonish parents to stop yelling and blowing air horns.

Yes, air horns. Can you imagine the noise they made inside the soaring Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul?

"They got so carried away, families couldn't hear their child's name being called," says Janicki.

So this year's commencement would be different, students learned at practice last week:

The Baccalaureate Mass would be held at the cathedral, but graduation would take place the next day at Dougherty. Seniors would hear their names announced only when they entered the auditorium. And they would not be handed their diplomas, as in past years.

The only students allowed on stage would be those receiving special honors.

Which infuriated many parents, who called Dougherty to demand that their children walk across the stage, too.

Larry Clark even vowed to bring "some kind of class-action lawsuit" - using his daughter, Diamond, as lead plaintiff - unless all students were given their 15 seconds of fame.

"Those kids getting the awards, are you telling me their parents aren't gonna make noise?" he asked when he called the Daily News to vent. "What about the rest of us? I want to watch my daughter shake the principal's hand and I want to feel my chest swell with pride. She worked for this! How can they deny us this tradition?"

Raucous high-school commencements aren't just a Catholic-school thing, or a Philly thing.

Last year, five students at Galesburg High School in Galesburg, Ill., were denied diplomas when friends and family cheered them during graduation.

And last week at Thomas County Central High School in Thomasville, Ga., uniformed guards kept order so that graduation wouldn't become a free-for-all the way it did last year, when two people were arrested.
 

Nothing says "Congratulations, Son!" like seeing dad being perp-walked off the premises.

Although I couldn't find evidence of parent brawls last year at any local high schools, an informal survey of friends who've attended recent commencements yielded anecdotes aplenty about the decline of decorum at a ceremony once regarded as dignified.

We're talking tailgating in the parking lot beforehand - by parents.

Beer shared during "Pomp and Circumstance" - by parents.

And the now-ubiquitous use of air horns by - sigh - parents as their sons and daughters shake the principal's hand on stage.

"We have 501 public-school districts in Pennsylvania and a range of private and parochial schools, and I'd say 98 percent of their graduations are thoughtful and respectful," says William Hartman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Elementary and Secondary School Principals.

But sometimes, he says, families compete to see who can scream loudest for their kids.

So "schools might change how they handle name announcements, to maintain control."

I guess I can understand why some parents get nutty.

Like everyone else, they've read headlines about the country's miserable high-school dropout rate, which worsens in poor areas. A new study by America's Promise Alliance reports that in 17 of the nation's 50 largest cities, fewer than half of the students who entered high school in 2003 ended up graduating.

Unless they're very lucky, these students will never land more than a menial job, if that.

The Dougherty parents I spoke with - whose kids are all college-bound - are proud that their kids have a better chance than that.

"We should acknowledge our children, especially when we give them high expectations and they fulfill them. If you can't do that at graduation, what's the point?" said Gail Lewis. Her daughter, Alexis Alexander, was so devastated to learn that she wouldn't cross the stage to get her diploma, "she didn't even want to go to graduation."

So Lewis, too, complained to Dougherty. Happily, Father Janicki took everyone's hurt to heart.

"The reason why we have graduation practice is to find out where we need to make adjustments," he told me yesterday. "Parents told us how they felt. So we've made adjustments."

Students will now hear their names announced at the very beginning of the graduation, as they enter the auditorium. And also at the end - they will receive their diplomas on stage and then file down the center aisle and out the door.

"This gives us two natural 'applause' moments," says Janicki. "Parents seem thrilled."

That includes Larry Cl
 
ark, who has dropped any notion of a class-action suit.

"This is exactly the outcome we wanted," he said, delighted. "Dougherty has been a wonderful school. I hated to think our experience there was gonna end on a sour note."

Speaking of sour notes, let's hope parents leave the air horns in the car. *

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns: