Blue ribbons for Grace [Commentary]

Students denied request to remember a lost friend

March 26, 2014|Susan Reimer

Grace McComas would have graduated this year from Glenelg High School, but she took her own life two years ago after months of brutal cyber bullying.

Her friends want to remember her by wearing a small blue ribbon pinned to their gowns, but they have been told they will be pulled out of the ceremony if they do.

School officials say they don't want to "celebrate" her death. The students say they just want to celebrate her life. And blue was Grace's favorite color.

Jillian Reilly and Liana Fitzgibbons met with Glenelg Principal Karl Schindler and a guidance counselor for 45 minutes to ask about the ribbons and if they could hang a banner for Grace. (Parents often hang banners for their graduating seniors and then use them later at parties.)

"Mr. Schindler told us it would glorify the death of Grace," said Jillian. "But we just want to remember her on graduation because she should be there with us."

The students carried their request to the Howard County Board of Education but were told that there was a strict policy that only academic honors can be displayed on caps or gowns during graduation ceremonies.

"But we looked through all the policies on the Howard County web sites and we have yet to find anything," said Liana. "And it isn't in anything they sent us about graduation."

Christine McComas, Grace's mother, led a successful effort last year to have the state legislature pass "Grace's Law," which makes the use of social media to bully a person under 18 illegal and punishable by a fine and/or jail time.

She maintains a Facebook page in memory of her daughter and when she posted about her sadness that Grace's friends had been denied their request, the news spread. At last count, there were almost 14,000 page views. Some who shared the post were from other countries.

"I have limited emotional reserves right now," said Mrs. McComas, as the second anniversary of Grace's Easter Sunday suicide approaches. "It's the kids I feel bad for. They are hurting and they deserve to be heard."

No mention was made of Grace in last year's yearbook, and it is unknown whether she will be mentioned in this year's edition.

"She was hurt so much by that school, and now it seems like they are trying to dismiss her very existence," said Mrs. McComas.

Mr. Schindler did not respond to a request to explain his decision but, coincidentally, he called and left a message with the McComas family shortly after I tried to reach him. He said in the message he wanted to discuss how Grace would be remembered at graduation.

A spokesman for the Board of Education said, "The school system supports remembrances and works with families and students at difficult times like this." But the ribbons are a non-starter.

It has been suggested that Grace's friends wear blue bracelets or wash-off tattoos on the graduation stage to remember Grace. Seems like a reasonable compromise. But Jillian and Liana have been told not to distribute the bracelets on school grounds, itself a chilling condition.

You know me. I'd let Grace's friends wear blue bathrobes to graduation if it gave them one second of peace. I'd probably insist on it so that her family could see, in the sea of blue, that their child was not forgotten.

Mr. Schindler and his superiors seem to think that bringing any kind of positive attention to Grace will encourage other teens to take their lives. But, in fact, experts believe that stifling any remembrance endangers the emotional equilibrium of a school.

"Simply prohibiting any and all memorialization is problematic in its own right — it is deeply stigmatizing to the student's family and friends, and can generate intense negative reactions, which can exacerbate an already difficult situation," it says in "After Suicide: A Tool Kit for Schools," prepared by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.

In fact, the publication says that schools should "proactively" meet with students to talk about how they would like to remember their friend.

Clara Nemar had been best friends with Grace since the age of 3 and now her wounded heart is just plain angry. She wants the entire graduating class to wear the ribbons. "They can't have no one walk across the stage.

"This is our transition into adulthood," she said. "We're supposed to be standing up for what we believe. This just feels like a slap in the face."

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at sreimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.


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