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A School in Michigan Banned Students from Wearing Shirts Honoring Their Dead Friend

Sixth-grader Caitlyn Jackson passed away of leukemia last Saturday, and her friends thought they would wear shirts in her honor at school the next day. The school administrators felt otherwise, and banned them from openly mourning their friend.

Caitlyn Jackson was a sixth-grader at Lakeview Middle School in Battle Creek, Michigan when she succumbed to leukemia on Saturday, November 9th. Her friends and family, as would be expected, supported her over the past three-and-a-half difficult years, pitching in to work a cancer charity benefit or fundraiser to promote her cause and to spread awareness, but ultimately ending with the tragedy of Caitlyn’s premature death, and leaving a handful of grief-stricken children. It was their idea to remember her and to deal with their own feelings by showing up at school the following Monday wearing handcrafted shirts bearing Caitlyn’s name in blue and orange, her favorite colors. Granted, 12-year-olds are likely the worst equipped in the world to understand and deal with the death of a friend, but the notion to signify her life with a common symbol of support is admirable, and at the very least may give these kids their first taste of empathy and community.


But the Lakeview Middle School administration disagreed. Having made the decision Sunday night, but without notifying parents in advance, when participating students arrived at school Monday morning, faculty informed them that the memorial was inappropriate, and gave them the option to either change into a different shirt or to cover the recently deceased cancer victim’s name with duct tape. Thirteen-year-old student and shirt-wearer, Gracie Macphee, described the situation, “We got called down to the office, and they’re like ‘it triggers too much emotion and you’re forcing people to mourn.’” Students were also allowed to turn the shirts inside out, being told that it would keep her name “close to their heart," while also hiding it.

Facing heavy backlash from the students and parents, the acting district chief, Amy Jones, explained that the school’s crisis management plan bans permanent memorials, which have the potential of exacerbating grief for students, based on “research and expert opinion." Jones told the Battle Creek Enquirer, “The intent was designed to protect the interests of all children.” But Caitlyn’s mother, Melinda Jackson, was floored. As she was getting ready to leave the Ann Arbor hospital where her daughter had just died, she received a call from the school informing her that the students were not going to be allowed to wear their shirts. “It was as though they took my heart, and not only just broke it more, they broke a piece off of it, wadded it up, threw it on the floor, and just stomped on it," Jackson told reporters, “This was not a memorial, to me this was just a way of the students expressing themselves to honor Caitlyn.” Students at the school agreed.


Perhaps some of the research should’ve been done on, a great resource for tips on helping children deal with death. Some of the suggestions include:

-“Talking about death helps children learn to cope with loss.”

-“Include the child in planning and attending memorial ceremonies: These events help children remember the loved one.”

-“[Factors] can affect the grief process of a child [for example,] whether the child is given the chance to share and express feelings and memories.”

However, school administrators were somewhat correct in their intentions, which were likely geared towards suicide victims and not cancer patients. The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children states that, “The only nationwide consensus regarding establishing memorials and memorial services in schools following student suicides is that memorials are not appropriate. Most accept and understand that memorializing a student who takes his/her own life communicates to those predisposed to suicide, ‘If you want to get noticed, kill yourself’.” Fortunately, few middle schoolers are hardcore smokers or have access to radioactive isotopes, so catching cancer for attention is a non-threat, and although it is true that an active memorial can bring up feelings of pain for those involved, these kids taking part had been watching Caitlyn struggle with leukemia for more than three years, so to suggest that a colored t-shirt with a name on it somehow outweighs several years of pain is ludicrous.


By Monday afternoon, the administration backed off. Participants were told that they would be allowed to wear the shirts the next day, and school officials reached out to Ms. Jackson, as they should have from the start. Jones acknowledged that “the ramifications of our decision caused more disruption than if we had let kids wear the shirts in the first place,” but maintained that “the intent of our decision was good.” Intent doesn’t end up meaning a thing when the real intent of this and similar zero-tolerance policies is to keep parents and lawyers off the school board’s back. All-encompassing rules are not only a lazy idea, allowing authorities to dismiss critical opinion in favor of an easy out, but while they save the school a headache, they also happen to ruin perfectly good kids by punishing them for deeds that happen to fall somewhere in the Venn diagram of “not allowed” and “mitzvah." Jones agreed that, in the end, it was not a good move, and that “hindsight is 20/20." Somebody should tell her that the view is a lot clearer when you don’t have your head up your ass.


More on mourning:

Preparing for Your Digital Afterlife

People Are Now Crowdfunding Their Funerals Online

Fake Funerals in South Korea