Memorials and suicides
School board continues discussion on plaques
By Erik Buchinger
The Clintonville School Board continued discussing memorial plaques at its Nov. 28 meeting.
The discussion started during the public comments session of the meeting. Audience member Maggie Coenen opened the discussion by talking about the recent death of her oldest son, who graduated from Clintonville High School about five years ago.
“Three hundred and sixth-two days ago, I lost my oldest son to suicide,” Coenen said. “It was a result of mental illness. It happens. Memorial plaques are a positive thing meant to celebrate a life lost – not to glorify a death or the means of death.”
Coenen said the plaques could be used to help teach students.
“Maybe instead of refusing to put up a plaque for a student who died as a result of suicide, maybe we should educate our students about suicide, mental issues and bullying,” Coenen said. “Education about mental illness and where to get help would be very helpful to students, especially in the middle schools and high schools.”
Coenen’s son Doniven graduated in May as valedictorian and spoke of his brother’s death.
“He received rave reviews of his speech,” Coenen said. “There probably wasn’t too many dry eyes in that auditorium, mine included. He brought his brother’s death in light not to glorify it, but to bring awareness to celebrate his life.”
“I’m not asking for a plaque for my son, but I just feel your idea that giving any suicide student a plaque would be glorifying suicide is absolutely and utterly ridiculous,” Coenen said.
The school board made the first reading of the new policy at a previous meeting on Nov. 14.
The board of education recognizes the far-reaching impact that a student or staff member’s death may have on students, staff, families and the community. The board believes that the remembrance of a student or staff member whose life ended during his or her school year should be consistent from case to case.
Considering the grief process of family and friends in accordance of this policy, the board recognizes the importance of remembering accidental or natural deaths of students or staff recommends the memorials take the form of scholarships.
Generally, the board does not support permanent memorials, including but not limited to, the use of memorial plaques or markers, which are mounted or displayed on district buildings or grounds. Memorials are permissible only after a proposal is approved by the superintendent.
School Board President Jim Dins said he spoke with about 75 people on the topic and recommended a revised policy.
“I’ve gotten a lot of input, and even though I agree with what we have written down here, I have to succumb to the people that voted me into my office,” Dins said. “I’m going to back a little water here and leave the plaques up until their class graduates and give them to their family or to their class. Family would get the first choice.”
Board member Jim Schultz said he dealt with suicide firsthand and has thought a lot about the issue.
“I’m really torn on this because I lost a son to suicide,” Schultz said. “It educated me a lot, and suicide is most of the time a mental disease. You can’t control it, so it’s important to me to have a policy that doesn’t differentiate deaths.”
Schultz told a story about a town in Montana where a kid committed suicide in a motorcycle crash into a semi, which led to a trend.
“There were something like 16 suicides in a very small town of kids, almost like a copy cat thing going on like,” Schultz said. “I know the plaques don’t do that, but this is about something much more than plaques.”
Schultz recommended to recognize students or staff who have died while involved with the school in the form of scholarships or funds.
“I would rather have everybody contribute to a fund or something with no names on it but everybody in recognition of those who have died in our schools and honor them all that way,” Schultz said. “I think if we get a policy, I would accept leaving the class up until the class graduates, but I don’t think I approve of having more added every year to just keep this going.”
Schultz said the initial discussions of the memorial plaques did not come in light of a suicide death of student Austin Arnold over the summer.
“It seems like because of the timing of this thing, it seems like we’re attacking one particular death because it was a suicide death, and that is not at all the case,” Schultz said.
Clintonville High School Principal Lance Bagstad restated that topic is more than a recent death.
“I’ve got to reiterate that we’ve gotten stuck on a focus with this policy because of a death this summer,” Clintonville High School Principal Lance Bagstad said. “We have to get off of the conversation that it’s about Austin Arnold’s death. We have to have a conversation about memorial plaques for any student or staff member at any grade level in the school district.”
The board tabled the discussion of the policy and will revisit the topic.