LINCOLN — A Nebraska school district is wrestling with a dispute over how to best memorialize students who have died.
The Centura school district, located northwest of Grand Island, recently told the parents of two students killed in a March traffic accident that they could not put specific “tributes” to students in this year’s school yearbook, citing concerns about the adolescent grieving process.
Parents and friends of the two Centura juniors, Bailey Jean Packer, 16, and Navi Nielsen, 17, both of Cairo, said they are willing to pay for ads to honor the students in the yearbook.
The parents said the school’s policy on “student memorials” doesn’t specifically cover the yearbook, and they think school officials, who cited advice from a national authority on student grief, are being inflexible and insensitive.
“If you talk to five different therapists, you’ll get five different ways to handle this thing,” said Cory Nielsen, Navi’s father. “This is what my daughter would want. It’s what a lot of kids want.”
Tara Schenk, whose family raised Bailey Packer since fourth grade, said they were also upset that the school district immediately removed photographs and drawings done by Bailey from the school.
“It’s upsetting,” Schenk said. “The kids think they’re trying to erase Bailey.”
But Centura school officials said they were following not only school policy but also the training given to them by an authority on student grieving, John Dudley, a Lincoln-based author and consultant on how to handle school crises.
Centura Superintendent Julie Otero said Dudley advises that it’s “not the job” of school districts to memorialize students, and he recommends that districts immediately remove photographs and clean out lockers of deceased students because adolescents need “finality” when grieving.
Otero said that Dudley has trained dozens of school crisis teams across Nebraska. Centura High School Principal Tammy Holcomb said that 12 other area school districts have similar policies about yearbooks: no memorials.
Holcomb said the district has a longtime tradition of allowing graduating seniors to purchase space in back of the yearbook for “tributes.” She said that because Navi Nielsen has a brother who is graduating, she could be included in his tribute. But because she and Bailey Packer were both juniors, tributes or ads specifically for them were not permitted to be placed in this year’s annual.
Holcomb said the two students are not excluded from the yearbook. They appear on 13 different pages each, she said, in pictures of their sports teams and school activities.
“That, to me, is the tribute,” the principal said. “That, to me, is the memorialization piece.”
Holcomb added that the Nielsen and Packer families will be allowed to place tributes in next year’s yearbook, along with other seniors in what would have been the girls’ graduating class.
The girls’ names also are being added to a 12-by-15-inch memorial plaque in the school, which honors deceased students and staff.
The two students were involved in a one-car accident on March 1 on a gravel road in rural Howard County. Both students were ejected in the rollover crash. Bailey Packer was pronounced dead later that night at the hospital; Navi Nielsen was transported to an Omaha hospital, where she died on March 24.
Both girls were described by family and school officials as good students who were involved in multiple school sports and club activities. Matt Schenk, who is Bailey’s uncle, said he collected 600 signatures in two days on a petition he posted on Facebook .
Both the Nielsen and the Schenk families say they are still grieving, and that the denials have exacerbated their suffering.