Current research says not to allow them
By Bert Lehman
The Clintonville School Board discussed for the third time school policy about recognizing students and staff who die while being associated with the district.
At its Sept. 26 school board meeting, board members were given a guide sheet.
“Our pupil services department has been discussing this issue,” said Clintonville School District Superintendent Tom O’Toole.
Tara Zeal, Special Education/Pupil Services director for the district, said this has been a topic all year to make sure the district has a current policy in place.
“We just want to be consistent on what we decide and get it into policy,” Zeal said. “It’s not fun to talk about but I think it’s a need to have a policy in place because right now it doesn’t really say anything specific about the memorial part. It’s kind of a touchy subject, but we have to talk about that and what we want to do with that.”
The board was given suggestions of dos and don’ts from the Wisconsin Department of Instruction.
School board member Jim Schultz said he understands that people want memorials, but added that memorials can encourage more suicides.
“We have to be really careful about that,” Schultz said. “It’s probably why we need a policy because it’s too easy to say yes to something in the heat of the moment.”
Board member Tom Neely asked who in the district would be responsible for making the decisions about memorials for students.
Zeal said the principals at each school building would be the contact person. She added that for that reason it is important for the district to have a set policy in place so the district is consistent.
Board member Ben Huber agreed that there should be a set policy, but he also told the board that no matter what type of policy it adopts, it won’t please everyone.
“Whatever that policy is, that makes that decision for those of us who are going to get approached about it a much easier decision because we know it’s been talked about, it’s been researched and it’s been established by the board as a policy that we all follow,” said Lance Bagstad, Clintonville High School principal. “If somebody then wants to be upset about that policy they have an avenue called blue sheets to come here (school board meeting).”
He added, “Anytime there is a difficult decision like that, a policy makes everything consistent.”
The board didn’t make any recommendations at the Sept. 26 meeting because board members felt they needed to research the issue more.
Zeal told the board a final policy should be developed sooner, rather than later.
Oct. 10 meeting
When the board revisited the issue at its next meeting it spent around 30 minutes discussing the type of policy the district should adopt.
Schultz recommended that the district treat all student and staff deaths the same, no matter how the cause of death.
With most of the discussion centered around how family and friends would feel if a memorial request for a student is declined, Bagstad told the board that there is a segment of the population who don’t want the district spending time on memorials.
Bagstad added that the board should consider developing specific guidelines regarding the graduation ceremony. He cited an example several years ago in which a graduating class requested an empty chair for a deceased student. Bagstad said he declined that request.
“That is such an important event for anybody’s life, that gradation piece, that I think legislating an event like that specifically would not be the worst idea in the world,” Bagstad said. “We can be more general with some of the other stuff but I think graduation is beyond the plaque on the wall, the tree in the courtyard.”
When the discussion turned to plaques memorializing fallen students, Bagstad asked how long they should be on display in the school.
O’Toole said very few resources indicated that a memorial plaque on the wall in a school was a good thing.
Dins said most of the resources stated a district should keep it low key and not provide much if any recognition.
Neely told the board a resident contacted him and told him that the plaques are the only way that those students would be recognized for years to come.
Neely also mentioned a playground that was named after a former teacher, and asked why it is all right to do that for some but not others.
“Just because it was done in the past doesn’t necessarily mean it is the way we should do it in the future,” Huber said.
O’Toole added that part of the reason the topic has been on several school board agendas was to allow the public to express their opinions to board members.
Bagstad asked that the board provide some direction at the next school board meeting as to what he should do with the current memorial plaques hanging in the high school.
Huber recommended the families be contacted and the plaques presented to the families.
Looking for clarification, Bagstad asked if he should remove all the plaques and then contact family members.
Neely and board member Mark Zachow disagreed with taking the plaques down.
Huber recommended taking the plaques down at the end of the school year. He added that every resource the board was given agreed that memorial plaques are not a good idea.
There was no official vote, but the board reached an agreement to take down all the memorial plaques at the end of the year. This would include putting up a plaque for Austin Arnold until the end of the year. Arnold was a student in the district who died during the summer.
Oct. 24 meeting
Prior to the Oct. 24 school board meeting, the memorial plaque for Arnold was added to the wall with the other memorial plaques. At the Oct. 24 school board meeting, the board was presented a petition with 204 signatures asking that the memorial plaques stay up at the high school. When presenting the petition to the school board, a student read a letter that was written prior to Arnold’s plaque being added to the others. The letter urged the school board to add Arnold’s plaque.
“As a student body, we believe that these plaques show importance of memory to ones that we lost,” the letter stated.
Andy Stainbrook addressed the board during the public comments portion of the meeting. He told the board that he receives permission from the involved families to have the memorial plaques made, and had previously received permission from the district to have the plaques displayed in the high school.
“There’s never been an issue with the plaques before this year, and it seems to me that the problem is with the school board, not with the student body,” Stainbrook said.
He said suicide is a gray issue, but there are other ways to help students other than taking down the plaques.
Stainbrook added that he spoke with a doctor at Marshfield Mental Health Department who said taking down the plaques could have an adverse impact on students. It would be showing them that the school doesn’t care about those students.
When the board discussed the topic later in the meeting, Huber reiterated that the board has reviewed a lot of compiled data on the subject and all of the data said any permanent memorial is not a good idea.
“It seemed like that was the one thing the experts agreed on,” Huber said.
Dins agreed with that assessment, adding that it didn’t matter what the cause of death is, permanent memorials are not a good idea.
“For many students it’s a positive, but for at least some, it’s a negative,” Huber said. “They felt the negatives for those students outweighed [the positive].”
O’Toole reminded the board that the district would also like a policy regarding the graduation ceremony.
“It (graduation) is for people graduating that day, it’s their ceremony,” Huber said. “There are other times when it may be nice to include former classmates.”
It was pointed out that in the past, students who died were recognized at graduation.
Huber told those in attendance that the board making a decision on the topic is not based on a single person or circumstance.
“We are trying to set a board policy for all students and all former students, and what we feel that should be,” Huber said. “It is an incredibly difficult thing to do, and frankly, there probably is no right answer.”
Bagstad said the discussion had turned into a discussion about something that happened during the summer, when in reality it is part of a larger conversation – the need for the school district to have a set policy that guides how decisions are made. He also said that policies change, so what was done in the past may not be the way things are done in the future.
“This is part of a bigger conversation about recognition or not recognizing, not because of one act that happened,” Bagstad said. “This isn’t a conversation based around a single plaque or a single person. It’s a conversation based around all of the plaques, all of the memorials, the whole fact that there needs to be some type of written policy to give guidance to anybody who has to make that decision, when that decision has to be made.”
Zeal added that new research about mental health has helped prompt school districts across the state to look at their policies or guidelines on how to handle student memorials.
“Mental health is being looked at differently in school districts and this is what is recommended now, and we need to look at that,” Zeal said.
The board will continue to discuss the topic at future school board meetings.
All memorial plaques remain on display in the high school.