Grandmother, classmates seek recognition for Eudora High student who died; principal says it’s against policy
photo by: Mike Yoder
For Anita Musick, seeing her granddaughter graduate from high school was going to be especially sweet.
Seventeen-year-old Aftyn Hankins had had a sad and troubled childhood, and she had bounced around a handful of area schools. Her experiences had left her “rough around the edges,” her grandmother says, but ready to get on with her adult life.
Finishing high school was an important milestone in that journey, but it was not to be.
Aftyn died on Aug. 2, 2018, following a car accident in Meriden — about two weeks before her senior year at Eudora High School was to begin.
Now, as her classmates prepare to graduate, Musick and some of Aftyn’s peers feel a sense of poignancy about what might have been — Aftyn wanted to join the Marines and become a flight nurse — and a desire to see her acknowledged in some way at Saturday’s ceremony.
What they had in mind: an empty chair for Aftyn and a mention of her name.
What they were surprised to learn: School “policy” prohibits such recognition.
Eudora High School Principal Ron Abel explained to the Journal-World this week that the policy in question is actually “two different policies.”
One, he says, is the Eudora school board’s policy regarding “memorials.” That policy states that “school sites should not serve as the main venue for permanent memorials for students or staff.”
Musick says she understands this policy but doesn’t see how it applies in this case because she is not requesting a permanent memorial but just an empty chair for the duration of the ceremony and a brief mention of her granddaughter’s name.
The second policy, Abel said, is the school’s Graduation Ceremony Guidelines, which state that “only students that have met the graduation requirements set forth by the Eudora Board of Education shall be eligible to participate in the graduation ceremony.”
Musick understands that Aftyn had not completed the coursework to graduate, but says that she is not asking for Aftyn to be given a diploma, real or honorary.
“She didn’t earn it,” she acknowledges.
At the same time, she doesn’t consider the recognition that she’s requesting as “participating in the graduation ceremony.”
Abel sees the matter differently. The policies he cited in denying the request do indeed apply to this situation, he says, and he is not willing to bend them.
“Once you create an exception, you open yourself up to all kinds of negotiations,” he says, explaining that, if he permitted this, parents whose children had not completed their graduation requirements would then petition him to be allowed to participate in graduation.
When asked if he makes no distinction between a student who had died and one who had simply failed to complete graduation requirements, he says he does not.
Emily Stilley, who will be graduating Saturday with about 120 other seniors, says Aftyn was her best friend. They had known each other since childhood but became close when they both transferred to Eudora High School in their sophomore year.
Emily plans to honor her, as do a few other students, by wearing a ribbon and a photo of Aftyn pinned to her graduation gown. But she doesn’t understand why the school can’t leave an empty chair.
“It wouldn’t matter to me at this rate if her name were even announced,” she said. “I just want them to act like she existed. She was a part of our class. If she was popular, it would matter.”