Courtesy Peggy Havnes
Kyle Kenyan, who committed suicide in January, is pictured in his last school picture in September 2011.
Officials at a high school in Minnesota are drawing the ire of more than a hundred of its students and parents for refusing to memorialize in its yearbook a student who committed suicide.
Kyle Kenyan would have been a senior this year at Menagha Public School in Menagha, Minn., but he committed suicide on Jan. 8. When word got out that school staff wouldn’t memorialize the teen in this year’s yearbook due out in May 2013, classmates started a petition to appeal their decision.
Even though this year’s senior class has less than 50 students, about 100 students throughout the rest of his school have signed the petition to get a memorial page in their yearbook, something his mother, Peggy Havnes, would also like to see.
“When I heard about it last week, I sort of fumed underneath because it’s not my fight to fight,” Kyle’s mother, Peggy Havnes, told NBC News. “My main concern is the kids, and I want to stand up for the injustice that goes to Kyle’s classmates, the class of 2013.”
But Menahga Public Schools Superintendent Mary Klamm said the school district’s policy on the issue is clear and firm.
“Long before Kyle’s death, we made the decision not to include memorials in our K-12 yearbook while we were updating our crisis manual,” Klamm told NBC News. “During that process, we took a lot of time to decide how to properly respond to the death of a student or faculty member, and we were recommended not to memorialize suicide because of the possibility of copycats. That’s our biggest fear.”
Klamm said a decision against a memorial page for Kyle in the yearbook, which will go to the school's 876 students, does not mean he'll be excluded from the yearbook entirely.
But students who have persisted in their quest to get a memorial page, Havnes said, have been told by school staff they could lose their walking privileges at graduation if they don't end their campaign. And the clash between students and administrators over her son, she said, has only served as a reminder of her of his death months ago.
“We were so saddened by this tragedy, and it’s very hard because all of our personal feelings that we had as a family when Kyle died have resurfaced,” Havnes said. “He was battling with some depression and we were trying to get him some help and it just didn’t come in time. We have a lot of family and community support and the least amount of support is coming from the school.”
Klamm said the movement to get a memorial page for Kyle was started by only “a couple of really loud” seniors who “completely circumvented school officials” and instead made public their pleas for the memorial.
Regardless, Havnes said there would be a clear lesson in the decision to include her son in the yearbook.
“I think we need to use this as a teaching tool because this can happen in anybody’s family and we need to take into consideration that this is not just my child but the community’s child,” Havnes said. “And if we can prevent any other family from going through this then we’ve accomplished something.”
Klamm said she has been in contact with other school administrators and they have made the same decision on yearbook memorials. “This is something schools have to deal with.”
In a similar incident, officials at the Winnisquam Regional School District in Tilton, N.H., were wrestling this month with a campaign waged by high school students who wanted to pay tribute in this year’s yearbook to a classmate, Alexandria “Ali” Nixon, who committed suicide in May 2010.
After students were allegedly told no mention would be made of Nixon in the yearbook, they started a petition on the website Change.org, which garnered some 1,500 signatures from people in several states and foreign countries. One student’s father even offered to purchase an entire page of the yearbook to dedicate to Nixon’s life but was refused by school administrators.
School officials denied ever mentioning that no mention would be made of Nixon. Members of the yearbook staff said the student responsible for drafting, circulating and submitting the petition ended up shredding it -- something the student subsequently confirmed.
School officials stressed that they followed school district protocol and affirmed that they would acknowledge Nixon in the yearbook, but they “did not want to glorify a death by suicide,” said Tammy Davis, the Winnisquam Regional School District superintendent.
Though the deadline for the Menagha High School yearbook is Nov. 1, Klamm said the issue is not closed because modern technology makes changes possible.
“Best practices tells us that that’s not the best thing to do,” Klamm said. “Are we going to have a memorial page? No. But we are going to continue to have a discussion to see what other options are available to memorialize Kyle.”
“The kids want this memorial and this memory page for Kyle,” Havnes said, “and I think the kids should have a say-so in what they want in their yearbook. It’s not to remember a suicide, it’s to remember Kyle.”
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