Removal of rock memorial leads to community controversy

The rock was repainted by the administration Feb. 28, covering a memorial to a North student who died by suicide. Memorial signs at North were also removed. Photo by Katie Maraldo ’21.
The rock was repainted the night of Feb. 28 during a student-led memorial with the message, “You R Loved.” The rock was allowed to stay up because the message was in line with the PREPaRE guidelines. Photo by Victoria Gardey ’20.
Hamka said he would have liked to notify the students who painted the rock originally before it was covered but was unable to find who had painted it since they didn’t officially sign the rock out. Photo by Victoria Gardey ’20.

When students arrived to school Friday, Feb. 28 the rock was freshly-painted as a memorial to a North student who died by suicide on Feb. 26. During the school day, administration made the decision to have the rock covered in white paint.

A similar memorial at North, in which students had hung up signs, was also taken down the same day. South principal Moussa Hamka said it was “a district decision between South and North in junction with (the) central office administrators.”

According to Hamka, administration at South did not contact students about the removal because they were unable to find who had painted the rock. Hamka said if administration were to have told anyone beforehand, it would have been those students.

In an email sent out to parents Friday afternoon from Rebecca Fannon on behalf of the district explaining why, the school district cited a curriculum called PREPaRE, developed by the National Association of School Psychologists for school crisis management.

“After reviewing the PREPaRE documents, the administration determined it would be safest to remove the North memorial and repaint the South rock this morning,” The email stated. “To help prevent suicide clusters it is critical that schools not glorify in any way the decision that this student made.”

One of the PREPaRE protocols cited in the email states: “Do not make a permanent memorial following a suicide”. Hamka said although the rock is not a permanent memorial, the PREPaRe training also mentioned “do not glorify, highlight or accentuate the event in any way.”

“I thought including the permanent memorial as a reason was stupid,” Julia Hudson ’20 said. “I understood where they were coming from, being worried (the memorial) was glorifying suicide, but I don’t think their reasoning was quite right. They should have been more open from the beginning and explained to kids their thought process before it happened versus after.”

On the night of Feb. 28, a student-led non-sanctioned memorial was held outside of South and the rock was repainted with the message, “You R Loved.” In line with the PREPaRE guidelines, this has been allowed to stay on the rock since it did not refer to a student’s name or suicide. Tia Bishop ’20, who attended the memorial, said “it was a very peaceful environment.”

Bishop is one of many students who went online to voice her concerns regarding the rock memorial’s removal, along with how mental health is dealt with at South. Bishop said the post went viral, which she did not expect to happen.

“I felt really upset by the actions of the school, and was tired of just sitting back and watching,” Bishop said. “I saw how much it affected so many students negatively, and since I had experienced circumstances—similar, but nowhere near the same—I thought it was important to voice myself.”

Following all the feedback, another email was sent out from superintendent Dr. Gary Niehaus to both parents and students of the district on Monday, March 2. The email further explained the administration’s actions and acknowledged the difficulty of the situation.

“In reflecting on last week’s events, the removal of the impromptu memorial messages on the rock at South and fence at North intensified the feelings of grief and caused hurt for our students,” Niehaus wrote. “Certainly that was not the intent of our administration. In taking the actions we took, we were not trying to cause any additional pain; we were trying to protect all students, especially those at risk.”

The email also said the district is offering opportunities for “open dialogue around mental health” at both North and South. At the first meeting at South on March 3, four students were in attendance, including Bishop.

“When the email was sent out Monday I found it insincere. As in, if the students didn’t have such a negative response, would the administration even care?” Bishop said. “I attended the meeting (on March 3) to get a feel for how the administration was going to deal with the situation. Many administration and staff members were very kind and seemed interested in making their school a better place for students.”

Katherine Parent, psychology teacher at South, made a statement regarding her stance on the removal of the rock memorial.

“There is no right or easy way to respond to a situation like this; no matter what action is taken, someone will be hurt by it,” Parent said. “If a memorial is removed, people who created it will be upset. If it remains, research indicates that people who have suicidal tendencies may see that as glorification, and a memorial could fuel their plans to take their own life. It is a lose-lose situation.”

Parent said she doesn’t think the hateful messages coming from the community toward counselors and administration are productive.

I’d like to remind everyone that this conversation is rooted in suicide prevention and awareness,” Parent said. “If we care about others’ mental health, the first step is to treat others with dignity and respect, even when we disagree with them.”

Hamka said despite all the criticism, the administration did get some positive feedback regarding the situation.

“We’ve received several emails from parents whose students are on that edge,” Hamka said. “People who said thank you for doing that (covering the rock).”

Hamka said he and the administration underestimated the impact that the student’s death would have on South.

“During my time here we’ve unfortunately experienced students who have passed away by suicide, by tragic accident, by health concerns,” Hamka said. “We’ve had students in other buildings who have passed away. And it’s hard to judge what the impact is going to be.”

Through sailing, Hudson knew the student who died. She was part of a group of sailors who went to North on Monday, March 2 to hand out chocolates and offer support. She said the memorial situation could have been handled better.

I understood where administration was coming from based on the fact that kids committing suicides in groups is a real thing,” Hudson said. “But they (administration) got rid of the memorials without explaining to students what they were doing until after. They did it without considering how it would affect the students who were grieving and viewed it as a positive thing.”

Hamka said he did not announce the student’s death over the P.A. because the student did not go to South. However, Hamka said one of the things he hopes the district will consider moving forward is how they notify the community when a student passes away. He said a community approach might be more effective.

Hudson said she thought South’s decision to not immediately acknowledge the North student’s passing was ignorant because the student was known by many community members outside North.

“I feel it’s bad that the administration preaches ‘One GP’ but the second it goes past a basketball game, it suddenly doesn’t mean anything and we’re not a community anymore,” Hudson said. “We all know one another, we’re friends with one another.”

Hamka said moving on, it’s important to improve communication and work together for change in the community.

“Clearly, we missed the mark,” Hamka said. “We also need to move forward. And clearly there’s a lot of pain behind this. The challenge is how we harness this energy now and use it for the greater good. The anger is not going to help us. How do we come together during this time of grief and be the change that we want to see?”