GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — A mother wants her son, who died in December, to be recognized at Grand Island Northwest High School’s commencement ceremony Sunday afternoon, but the Grand Island school district says it won’t be possible to do so.
Amanda Jurgens said her son, Ricky Reha, died just months before he could graduate. Her wish was to have her son’s name mentioned at graduation and to be able to accept his diploma on his behalf.
But “the school said he did not meet graduation requirements, which I understand as he passed away in December and was not given a chance to meet them,” Jurgens said. “They were talking about how it would be unfair to students who went all year round and did not make it to graduation and were concerned their parents would want them also mentioned.”
She added, “I understand where they are coming from, but those students are alive. They just chose not to do the work and do what it takes to graduate. Those parents will get a chance if their kids decide to pursue a GED.”
Northwest Superintendent Matt Fisher said commencement is a ceremony to recognize students who have completed the requirements set forth by the Northwest Board of Education to receive a diploma.
While this is a time of joy, Fisher said, it can also trigger “feelings of loss.”
“Sometimes this is a sense of loss associated with a classmate who has moved away. In some cases, that may be the loss of a parent or grandparent,” he said. “When there is a recent death of a child and classmate, this sense of loss is heightened.”
Fisher said that Reha will not be recognized at graduation and that Jurgens will not receive his high school diploma at that time. However, he said she will be given a diploma at some point later.
“We are going to issue a diploma just so that she has that keepsake,” he said. “He had not completed all of his coursework that he would have needed to receive a diploma. But we felt that as a memento to mom, it would be something we would be willing to do.”
Northwest senior Carley Cuba said the senior class would like to see Reha honored in some way. Friday, she and three other seniors organized a walkout to protest Reha not being honored at graduation.
Cuba said the decision to have the walkout was “kind of last-minute,” but the news of it spread around Northwest “really fast,” especially after it was posted on social media.
Cuba said there were approximately 50 students who participated in the walkout. She added that she and her classmates educated students about suicide prevention during the walkout. There were also some pictures of Reha that students could sign.
Fisher said Northwest will have an empty chair placed with the graduates at Sunday’s commencement ceremony and those in attendance can associate it with whomever they wish.
“We understand that everyone grieves differently. There is no way we can make what we do fit the grieving needs of everyone,” he said. “It is also important to understand that doing something specific for one situation may be hurtful to others in attendance who might feel their loss is not recognized. The open chair recognizes the loss and then allows each person to visualize the role of whoever they put in that chair.”
Jurgens said she and her daughter plan to attend Sunday’s commencement ceremony to honor Reha and his friends. She added that they know when Reha’s name would have been read and that they will say his name at that moment.