The graduating seniors at a Eugene, Ore., high school were heartbroken to learn that school administrators had denied their request to honor a classmate who died of cancer. The students had allegedly requested to carry the girl’s ashes during their graduation ceremony on Friday.
Yvonne Bell-Alanis was just 16 when she succumbed to leukemia last year. Her mother, Tiffany Bell-Alanis, told Yahoo Lifestyle that Yvonne “loved school” and “was so excited about graduation and going to college.”
Her friends and classmates loved her too, so they reportedly asked administrators at Willamette High School for permission to do something to honor Yvonne during graduation. Some ideas they reportedly came up with included carrying Yvonne’s ashes across the stage in an urn, holding a picture of her or having a moment of silence in her memory.
"When I knew that she was very sick and that she was going to pass, I knew I wanted to do something during graduation," said Yvonne’s friend Jade Powell to KMTR.
But the day before graduation, school officials changed their tune, according to a Facebook post from Tiffany. The grieving mom said her daughter’s classmates were told they would only be allowed to carry photos of Yvonne in their pockets. No public remembrance of the student would be allowed, Yvonne’s loved ones apparently learned.
According to a Facebook post by Tiffany, the school reasoned that “holding an item appears to make a memorial,” and “graduation is a joyful time, and [they] dont want to ruin that.”
But the school’s version of the story is a bit different. Bethel School District spokesperson Pat McGillivray told KMTR that the school was in discussions with Yvonne’s classmates and family about how to honor the girl in a way that wasn’t public, including carrying wisps of her hair in lockets around their necks.
McGillivray said the school wanted graduates to be able to do something that was impactful while also being respectful of others at the ceremony, according to KEZI.
He told KCBY the question became, “What can we do that would meaningful to those who loved and miss Yvonne, while not unintentionally impact any of the thousands who are attending there, who may have had a tragic loss recently of their own?”
But Yvonne’s mom tells Yahoo Lifestyle that no negotiations between the school and loved ones ever took place. Tiffany said the students hadn’t gotten any responses from the school in their quest to agree on a way to celebrate Yvonne’s would-be milestone.
She said one student even went to school officials the day before graduation and had all of her ideas denied except her request to wear the commemorative locket, but no collective resolution was ever reached.
“These girls weren't asking for a chair, a speech, or anything in regards to the school doing anything,” Tiffany said on Facebook. “They just wanted their best friend there with them. I have spoken to many cancer parents and each one said that the high school honor their child for their graduating class. They leave an empty chair in the front row with a rose and cap [and] a picture of the missing student.”
The day after the decision was announced by Willamette’s vice principal, Tiffany said she tried once more to negotiate a deal that she and Yvonne’s peers would be more comfortable with — to no avail.
“She said that she is sticking with the decision of the vice principal. That having the girls honor their friend brings too much sadness and a memorial is not sticking to the true event,” Tiffany wrote.
The mother said that while many students wanted to honor her daughter’s memory, they were afraid of repercussions.
“What would have been fair is letting the girls walk with her photo. Instead, they were forced to leave them in the gym or the couldn't walk. Another student who had decorated her cap for Yvonne had to walk without her cap,” she added.
Friends and classmates were just as upset as Yvonne’s mom. “They claim that we're a family at Willamette,” said Yvonne’s friend Hailee Flores, “but they don't treat us like that.”
Some people took to Willamette’s Facebook page to express their disdain with the school’s decision in the comments of a graduation post. “Shame on you Willamette for not allowing Yvonne Bell-Alanis friends to honor her with a simple picture to carry,” one wrote. “I'm disgusted at the complete lack of morality and empathy that you showed her family and friends.”
“Yvonne Bell-Alanis should have been honored. She deserved a seat with her classmates at graduation,” another commented. “So disrespectful to her family and friends.”
Tiffany, who has been advocating for leukemia awareness since her daughter’s untimely death, hopes the school district will change its mind for future graduating classes looking to honor lost loved ones at their ceremonies. She said Yvonne’s classmates were denied that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, though, “and they can't ever gain that back."
In the meantime, Tiffany hopes Yvonne will be remembered as a “compassionate, funny” teen who “wanted to be a medical examiner because she loved the medical field but didn’t want to bring pain to anyone.”
She said Yvonne had “a smile that would light up a room, and her laugh was so contagious.”
Yahoo Lifestyle has reached out to the Bethel School District for comment.
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