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Harrisonville denies family’s petition to have deceased student’s name read at graduation

HARRISONVILLE, Mo. -- A Harrisonville family’s online petition to get their daughter’s name read at this week’s graduation appears to have failed.

The Harrisonville School District confirmed Monday they won’t alter their plans to honor 15-year-old Gabi Keil, who died by suicide last school year.

Harrisonville isn't the only school district dealing with the difficult debate this week. Both Harrisonville and nearby Belton will have moments of silence at graduation ceremonies Friday and Thursday, respectively.

Belton's Class of 2018 lost multiple students -- including 15-year-old Bailey Wages who died from an accidental drug overdose in 2016.

“Nobody could tell me the protocol. I just wanted to know what they did in this situation when a student passes away from their school district," her mother Lisa Benton said.

The district decided students can request ribbons to honor classmates and will present Benton with an honorary diploma for her daughter, the day after the ceremony.

“I just kept thinking, 'How is that honoring her?' Honoring her in silence, not saying her name at all -- it makes no sense," Benton said.

Benton has decided not to attend Thursday's Belton High graduation.

On Thursday, the day before Gabi Keil would have graduated, her sister will present a scholarship in her honor at Harrisonville High.

She presented more than 23,000 signatures to Harrisonville's School Board urging them to read Keil's name. On Friday she received a rejection letter that called it the board's "final decision."

Instead Harrisonville will have Keil's name in the program and an empty chair in her honor with a gown draped across it.

“What’s going to be hard is to see the open chair and see her name printed but just go by it like she was never there," her sister Jennifer Keil said.

Both women hope to keep conversations alive about suicide, drugs and other ways teens die, which they feel schools have turned into stigmas.

“The more you talk about it, the more that kids know and they can learn from it," Benton said.

“I’m more than determined to keep her memory alive and make sure she’s never forgotten," Keil said.

Raymore-Peculiar, Belton and Harrisonville school officials responded to FOX4 requests about their policies regarding student-deaths and graduation.

Harrisonville:

"The Wildcat family has endured the loss of students over the years and our hearts go out to all impacted by those losses. There are times when those losses take on greater significance to family and friends and we know that graduation is one of those times. We do all we can to ensure the feelings of everyone involved in the graduation ceremony are taken into account.

"We are aware of an online petition started by the sister of a Class of 2018 classmate who passed away last year. Prior to the holidays, Harrisonville High School Principal Mark Wiegers met with the petitioner to discuss the graduation ceremony for the Class of 2018. As has been the practice at HHS in the recent past and at Mr. Wiegers’ previous high school, he suggested a remembrance chair for the ceremony - an empty chair with a gown draped over it - to honor Gabi. Mr. Wiegers also suggested the inclusion of Gabi’s name in the program, listed as “In Memory of Classmates Lost.”  He also offered to order an honorary diploma for the family.

"It has not been the practice of Harrisonville High School to read the names of any students who pass away prior to graduation during the ceremony.
We feel that the remembrance chair and program listing are appropriate ways to remember our students and to maintain the spirit of a graduation celebration."

Belton:

"The Belton School District does not have an official board policy on this subject, but we do have 3 procedures the high school employs, and those came out of conversations with class officers and class sponsors.

"In his remarks, the principal requests a moment of silence for classmates who have passed.

"If seniors request ahead of time, ribbons (with safety pins) will be made available for the graduates, and students can choose to take one and wear it in remembrance of those who have passed. They are not required to take one -- and the ribbons are only available should students make the request ahead of time to have them.  Finally, if parents of the child who has passed specifically ask, we will make arrangements for the family to stop by the school and issue an honorary diploma."

Raymore-Peculiar:

"At Raymore-Peculiar High School, we place a graduation cap, a diploma cover, and a white rose in an empty chair for each deceased graduate.  We also recognize each one by reading their name(s) followed by a brief moment of silence just before the other graduates are called to the staged to receive their diplomas."

Raymore-Peculiar does not have any deceased members from this year's graduating class.