'It's disgusting': School cancels plan to honour dead student at graduation

Graduating students at a US high school were heartbroken to learn that school administrators had denied their request to honour a classmate who died of cancer.

The students had allegedly requested to carry the girl’s ashes during their graduation ceremony on Friday (local time).

Yvonne Bell-Alanis was just 16 when she succumbed to leukaemia last year. Her mother, Tiffany Bell-Alanis, told Yahoo Lifestyle that Yvonne “loved school” and “was so excited about graduation and going to college.”

A photo of Yvonne with what would have been her graduation gown. Source: Tiffany Bell-Alanis/Facebook
Yvonne was due to graduate last week. Source: Tiffany Bell-Alanis/Facebook

Her friends and classmates loved her too, so they reportedly asked administrators at the Willamette High School in Oregon for permission to do something to honour her during the ceremony.

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.

But the day before graduation, school officials changed their tune.

The grieving mum 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.

Graduation is a joyful time, school says

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] don’t 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 honour 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.

He told KCBY the question became, “What can we do that would be 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?”

A tribute posted to the Facebook page of the teen's grieving mother shows Yvonne smiling under a header that reads: What about me?
A tribute posted to the Facebook page of the teen's grieving mum. Source: Tiffany Bell-Alanis/Facebook

No negotiation between school and family

But Yvonne’s mother told Yahoo Lifestyle that no negotiations between the school and loved ones ever took place.

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 honoured 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 mother said that while many students wanted to commemorate her daughter, they were afraid of repercussions.

Friends and classmates were just as upset. “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 honour 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.”

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.”

Yahoo Lifestyle reached out to the Bethel School District for comment.

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