Volusia County's NAACP chapter marched Wednesday against plans to bring Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to speak at Bethune Cookman University's commencement.

Students who joined the march say they have a plan to protest during the commencement as well.

  • Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking at Bethune-Cookman University commencement
  • Students say graduating class will make statement of some kind at commencement
  • B-CU: DeVos shares Bethune legacy of education opportunity

DeVos was criticized after saying historically black colleges were pioneers of school choice. Critics say HBCUs grew out of necessity because black students were barred from attending regular universities and colleges.

About 60 people took part in the march that started outside New Mt. Zion church on Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Boulevard.

Several of the marchers Wednesday evening said the cloud of controversy takes away from the students' achievements. 

"I think the timing is wrong. When students graduate, especially from college, it’s a time of joy and it’s about them," said Cynthia Slater, Volusia County-Daytona Beach NAACP President.

March participant Becker Lebrun would prefer to see a speaker who would uplift and inspire students.

"I have several issues, but the biggest issue is because it's a commencement speech. If she wanted to come to have a dialogue with students, I think that would be a good forum, but the commencement speech, they don't have a choice," she said. 

Tyler and Taylor Durrant graduate from the college on May 10, when DeVos is scheduled to speak.

On Wednesday, they spent their afternoon making signs to protest the university's decision.

"I want the university to understand that nothing is free and now we are going to be under the thumb of someone that says. 'I did you a favor, don't forget that,'" said Taylor Durrant.

"We are not walking out of our graduation, this is our day, not her day," said Tyler Durrant. "The graduating class will definitely let people know this is going to be something to remember."

The Durrants said some students from the graduating class are planning something for the big day.

"We won't disclose on what the graduating class has come to, but it will be something we are all in support of. We know our alumni and the city will support us as well. I hope everyone is at graduation," said Tyler Durrant. 

University officials released a statement on the school's website. The statement talks about DeVos' ability to relate to the school's founder, saying DeVos has worked to expand educational opportunities for students.

"Bethune-Cookman University is a school built on the legacy and the transformation of students," B-CU President Dr. Edison O. Jackson wrote. "Dr. Bethune's love for students started with five little girls and grew to over 250 students during her time as university president.

“The legacy of Dr. Bethune is that she was not constrained by political ideology, but worked across all parties to support B-CU.” 

The president of the university also released a statement to students via email about the decision. 

The U.S. Dept. of Education Press Secretary Liz Hill issued this statement:

“Secretary DeVos is honored by the invitation from Bethune-Cookman University to deliver the 2017 commencement address.  She believes that open dialogue and a willingness to work together are key to solving our nation’s most pressing issues, and she looks forward to continued dialogue with the HBCU community and the Bethune-Cookman students, faculty, and staff."