Sunday, January 31, 2016

Zach Williams graduation controversy is about community and humanity

In a community where everything has been lost in the prism of May 22, 2011, sometimes it is easy to overlook basic truths.

It is also easy to overlook basic humanity.

Such has been the case with the continuing controversy surrounding the request by Zach Williams' mother to have a chair draped with a cap and gown when graduation ceremonies are held May 22, 2016, the five-year anniversary of the tornado that took her son's life.

The decision was made to list Zach, along with other students and staff members who lost their lives in the tornado, during a part of the ceremony, which will include a moment of silence.

While this is an appropriate remembrance, it misses the point.

Zach Williams was not just someone who lost his life in the tornado- he would have been a member of the Class of 2016.

Actually, except for the fact that it ended Zach's life, this really has nothing to do with the tornado.

It has everything to do with basic humanity and with community.

People have written some horrible things about Zach's family and its quest to see his memory honored. Zach's mother has been accused of being selfish and putting her needs above the wishes of the members of the JHS Class of 2016.

Some particularly cruel social media comments have noted that Zach may not have graduated this year, with one even noting that he may not have made it to graduation because of the growing suicide rate among teens.

While some seniors who knew Zach have supported the efforts to have a chair for their former classmate, others have complained that it would be too "somber" and this graduation event is about the ones who will receive their diplomas.

In other words, it's sad that Zach couldn't make it, but we did, and it is all about us.

In his December 4 message to parents, Joplin High School Principal Kerry Sachetta reviewed the thought process that went into his decision to reject Zach's mother's request:

Our current and longstanding practice is to recognize students who pass away at any point while attending Joplin High School by announcing their names and holding a moment of silence to honor them during the graduation ceremony. We have recognized ten high school students in this manner over the last several years. This recent request and the conversations occurring on social media and in our community have challenged us to review this practice. Is this the best way to honor students? Should we expand this to include students who never attended our high school but attended Joplin Schools? How would we ensure students weren’t forgotten? Is this appropriate during what is typically a celebratory event? What do other schools in our area do? And, what we believe is the most important question, what do our students think? Graduation is, after all, a celebration and recognition of their accomplishments.

As I read that, I remembered a Jasper High School graduation I covered many years ago, in which the graduating class remembered one of its own, Jessica Jo Lynn. Jessica was not taken from this earth while she was in high school, but during a fire when she was nine years old. Nine years had passed, but her classmates never forgot her and wanted to make sure she was included in their special moment.

Can you imagine how important that moment was to Jessica's family?

The practice of having a chair with a cap and gown on it has been used at many area schools.

Unfortunately, the situation has escalated in Joplin The threats to hold protests if the empty chair is not allowed have only served, understandably, to stiffen the resolve of school officials. We have reached the point where no one seems willing to make a move in the direction of doing what would serve the community best.

And let's be clear about one thing- while the spotlight at the graduation ceremony shines most brightly on those who cross the stage and receive their diplomas, commencement has been, and always will be, a community activity.

Community is not just a word to be summoned by school officials whenever it is time to pass a bond issue or increase a tax levy. The Joplin R-8 community must be an inclusive one and the best message that can be sent to the community is that Joplin Schools do not leave anyone behind.

This would be the perfect time to start a new tradition. A folding chair with a cap and gown should placed with the students when the ceremony is held at Missouri Southern State University less than four\months from now, but it should not be for just Zach Williams. One of the people who commented on Facebook, noted that one of her siblings would have graduated this year, but she was not asking for anything special.

She should.

A chair signifying those who lost their lives far too early would be a sign of a Joplin High School graduating class that never forgets. Invitations to the graduation should be sent to the parents of those children. While the reading of the names of those who receive diplomas should be limited to those who will actually receive them, nothing is wrong with putting a few extra names on the program noting those who have passed.

These actions would not detract from any of the attention being given to the members of the graduating class any more than the listing of people who died during the preceding year detracts from the Academy Awards. It is done at schools across this country and it has never cheapened the graduation experience.

And again, think of how much this thoughtful action would mean to these parents to know that no matter how many years have passed, their children remain alive in the hearts and memories of their classmates.

The people of Joplin earned the praise they received for their response to the tornado, but the tornado, despite the important role it has played in our lives, is not the sum total of who we are.

Graduation ceremonies are celebrations of accomplishment and the prospect of unlimited horizons, but it never hurts to take a moment and look back on what might have been.


Anonymous said...

Remembrance is important. But is it really fair to the graduating students to let the 5 year anniversary of an event that we blame all our problems on, overshadow the fact that they are graduating? We have some amazing students moving on from JHS this year and THAT is what we need to focus on. I knew Zach and we were friendly towards each other. But it isn't fair to anyone in the graduating class to have their big day overshadowed by extra stuff that was demanded and not accepted with appreciation. Let the day be about the exceptional students moving on. They have worked very hard. And deserve to not have their day tainted by an event that has not stopped been mentioned since the day it happened.

Anonymous said...

It really takes so little for us to be humane to each other. A cap and gown in a chair. Is that really so difficult? In these days of just doing what is good for ourselves, it would take so little to let the family of Zach know that he is not forgotten. That his memory lives on in the hearts of his classmates. I really hope that God changes the hearts and minds of the officials that have said no to these parents.

Anonymous said...

My brother was killed when he was only 9 yrs old. A fourth grade student. I live in a small community. After a family discussion of whether or not to attend the graduation of his class we decided against. Felt it may take away from the other students or be difficult for some of the families that were close to us. There was never a thought to have hin remembered in the ceremony. The grieving and mourning process is a personal one. Different for each person. At the graduation the class did remember my brother. They spoke highly of him and the emptiness they felt without him there that day. It was beautiful. It was completely unnecessary. I knew already that he still lived in the hearts of many people. How much more it meant that the students chose such an act, without demands from my family. They didnt see us there and felt the need to say something publicly. Losing a family member, especially a child is horindeous. But you dont have to force people to acknowledge the life they had. They are forever remembered in the hearts of the ones they touched.

Anonymous said...

If I could ask the writer 9:14 PM one question: If the "extra stuff" as you put it was your brother, would you still feel the same way? I agree with 9:40 PM. I pray that God will soften hearts. May compassion for the grieving who have lost a child loosen the hold on self.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

The city is doing a big 5 year anniversary of the tornado event. This is the right place to address Zach but not at a graduation ceremony for a school he never attended. If feels like this stopped being about Zach a while ago and is now about how the school is responsible for the mental health of his mother.

Anonymous said...

I agree with 9:14. Why take away from these kids day. There is a possibility that the kid may not have even graduated for whatever reason. Plus the kid had only been at Joplin Schools for a few weeks when all this happened. I think its horrible she lost her son but she needs to accept the fact the school is not changing the policy. She is making it about her when it has absolutely nothing to do with her and everything to do with these kids who worked hard for this day!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the tornado missed a few heartless souls in Joplin.

Anonymous said...

God put up a chair you asshats. Your all starting to sound like Liberals. Even Huff would have put up a empty chair if nothing else so he could have an excuse to cry.

Unknown said...

It is sad that it has come to this point. So what if Zach never do you know he wouldn't have? Yes whoopie for those graduating with high honors but dont be a brat about it. Show some compassion. It could have been Zachs graduation too and he could have graduated top of his NEVER KNOW. So stop with the insanity. A community comes together not against each other. Joplin Strong!

Anonymous said...

From reading some of these comments, it sure looks like they are being written without reading what Mr. Turner wrote. He suggested a chair in honor of all of those who attended Joplin Schools and died and having their names included on the program. Whether that would be enough to satisfy the boy's mother I don't know, but it sure seems to be an excellent idea that could resolve any similar situations in the future. As Mr. Turner also pointed out, quite correctly, it does not matter how Zach Williams died, this is not a tornado issue. What members is he would have been a member of the class of 2016. I am tired of hearing that the kids voted and so it has to be this way. There was never a need to put this to a vote. Please take the time to read what Mr. Turner wrote.

Anonymous said...

Only the good die young.

Anonymous said...

I can see both sides to this issue but I think protesting at the graduation would be wrong. Protest until then if you wish but if it doesn't go your way let the students have their day without incident, it is not their fault. And either side being nasty to the other is just uncalled for, that needs to stop.

Anonymous said...

My daughter is in this graduating class and she did not know Zach. She is all on board with him having a chair at graduation. No one should care if he ever attended the high school. He was a Joplin student and would have been there if the disaster hadn't struck. I went to school in Carthage where 4 kids were killed when they were drinking and driving, no disaster, they made a stupid mistake, and we still put chairs with roses out for them. It didn't make our day sad we still celebrated what we had accomplished, even tho there were deaths we still moved on. The kids who do not want this are all about themselves, I have learned alot from my daughter who is graduating, she wants everyone to respect the loss of life that happened that tragic day, they do not have to say his name with all the other graduates, it is there day. But respect for people and their feelings should go further than what some people at the high school say.

Dusty Roads said...

Karnac says he would have been the Valedictorian..

kitty chiwawa said...

9:52, you think Liberals are hard-asses or something? I'm thinking just the opposite. No one group holds the bragging rights to being cold-hearted and insensitive. Sounds like the leanings of a different group to me. Just sayin'.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, who's to say that he would have actually graduated this year? It's quite possible that he could have flunked or dropped out. His family may have even moved to a different city altogether. Heck, he wasn't even in High School at the time of the tornado. My opinion is that if the District bends to these demands then they should have empty seats for ALL the children killed in the tornado whenever their (hypothetical) year of graduation comes.

Anonymous said...

He didn't earn that seat like the others did and she is pushing her grief on others. It was incredibly kind for them to offer putting a plant on the stage. There is no honor in dying unless it was apart of a self sacrificial act. Everyone does it. After people die they are gone. We have to live, not die with them. That will come soon enough. Let the dead bury their dead and let the living live in peace without your drawn out grief.

Anonymous said...

...and no, I should not and will not feel guilty over the people who have died and not made it to their graduation for whatever reason. The other students should not either. This is not as much a selfish thought, as you have said, as it is a sane one. People die, people live, get over it.

Anonymous said...

Carolina or Denver?

Unknown said...

We ask what wrong with the world in 2016.... So many lack love and compassion for other humans... It all about them... The Empty Chair a mental Health Grief coping tool very highly recommend in mental heath..This Empty Chair is done at many many area Schools..

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting post, but a few things are missing. First JHS has never used the "empty chair" as part of the graduation memorial. My understanding is that traditionally the student's name is read or show on the screen and there is a moment of silence. That is a very appropriate memorial just different from the "empty chair" concept.

Second: No matter what anyone says, Zach was not a member of the JHS Class of 2016. He was a member of his middle school class. Now had he attended the same school from K-Death that would be different. There is also talk that he was not in the Joplin system that long. The entire concept of the "empty chair" as a memorial is that a person had once occupied the chair. In Zach's case, he never attended JHS and was not a student at that school. He was never eligible for graduation.

He is being remembered along with all the other victims and students who died in the traditional manner of this particular school. His mother asked and was told no, so now she is pitching a fit and threatening to disrupt the graduation. That makes this about her and not her son.

Graduation is about those who have accomplished the requirements to leave High School and Zach sadly never came close. The mother has actually asked for several things including a chair, a cap and gown, a picture on stage and having his name called. So she is wanting to make it appear that he attended the High School.

Once she ask and the answer was no but this is what we are doing, anything after that becomes about her and the pretense that her son did not die at age 12.

Anonymous said...

Oh Georgianna - why is your name always coming up in the news? You seem to thrive off media attention.
One Google of your name brings up lots of information about you.

I'm sorry but when would the demands end? Will Zach get a chair at the college graduation - you know the college he may have talked about....will he have an honorary seat in the Christmas parade which he so loved...

Andy Johnson said...

My first post got removed!?

Randy, I've known you for years, even played baseball with you 30+ years ago. I'm really disappointed that you can't be a little more even on your journalism concerning the Zachary Williams issue. Your post was so one sided, even for you.

You detail the hate that has been directed towards Zach's mom, yet not even a mention of the vile comments made towards the Joplin R8 and Kerry Sachetta. On top of that, there have been similar rude comments made to my family from the social media followers of Zach's mom and The Turner Report.

I get it, you have an axe to grind with the Joplin R8. I did not totally agree with the way your situation was handled, however, you even admitted that you had made a mistake. You taught in our school system, yet you seem to enjoy bringing grief to very students that you had the privilege of teaching. When will the bashing end? It has been almost three years since your dismissal, when will your healing be done? Do you need a chair as well? Change takes time, and yes changes are being made, maybe not as quickly as you would like.

I have a daughter that is in the 2016 JHS graduating class. I also have a son in the class. I also have a daughter that would have been in the graduating class. Common core might indicate 5 kids, but it is really three. I lost my Hailey when she was in 6th grade at South Middle School. I do have a vested interest in this topic. Hailey will always be remembered as our 11 year old angel.

Zach's mom reached out to my youngest daughter late this evening. She did this after many disgusting things had been said on social media. These things were not said by her, they were said by the followers on social media. These comments have been going on for some time, many directed at my daughter, some at other students . It is surprising how many comments are coming from non Joplin residents.

A request was made, a request was denied after careful consideration. This issue will not end with everyone happy, especially when we keep stirring the negative.

Randy said...

Andy, I haven't removed any posts. Are you sure You are not thinking about the one you left on my Facebook page?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Johnson
You make a great point. I am sorry for your loss and as you point out Hailey is your 11 year old angel. You do not consider her a member of the JHS Class of 2016 as her siblings are. You are not asking for a school she never attended to pretend that she did. I am also sorry that so many "cyber righteous" folks have created issues for your children.

I think that this mother's grief could have been better directed at starting a scholarship in memory of her son that could have been awarded to a JHS Senior is Zach's name. Might still be time to do that if all the "supporters" pitch together. 1000 supporters giving $100 creates a 100K fund, perhaps they could consider that instead of a protest.

Anonymous said...

I'm late to this discussion of a very sad situation. It seems most of the ugly comments here and on Facebook have come from those who don't live in Joplin. Why do they believe they're entitled to weigh in on this subject? I get it. In your town a student who has died is honored with an empty chair and maybe a rose or cap and gown or any of the other items some can imagine. That is great. How many times did I read, "in Carthage...(I use Carthage as the example because people there absolutely love to bash Joplin.) it's wonderful if that is your tradition. But, that's what it is, your tradition. We have our traditions as well. One is not better than another, just different. A compromise has been reached that is sensitive and dignified. I find the image of the empty chair a little cheesy, but to each his own. Maybe Zach's mother wanted to bring the tradition from his previous school district to Joplin's commencement ceremony. The idea was considered and an alternative offered. The fact that this devolved into a temper tantrum, after which they must not get their way or it would set a horrible precedent, is the saddest part of all. Zach's memory is sullied by nasty threats from people who do not even live here. Nice.