No empty chairs at graduation. No school dances or football games dedicated to a dead classmate. Avoid memorial plaques and consider charitable donations instead.

A new Westside Community Schools policy outlines the ways that schools, students and families can channel grief over a student’s death, without inadvertently glorifying death or damaging kids who are mourning.

The Westside board voted 5-0 Monday night to approve the policy.

Board President Dana Blakely said the board was deferring to the expertise of staff members who know more about handling student grief in an age-appropriate way.

“As these situations arise, it’s also very helpful for us to have looked ahead to receive some guidance and some input from the people who know best how to work with our students in a positive and healthy way,” she said.

Schools have long struggled to strike the right balance between paying tribute to students who have died and drawing attention to tragedy, especially in cases of teen suicide.

“School officials must balance the desire to honor and remember a cherished individual with awareness and concern for the emotional well-being of all students,” Westside’s policy reads.

Battles between students and families and school administrations over school memorials have cropped up across Nebraska in recent years.

Last spring, officials in the Centura school district told the parents of two students killed in a March car crash that the district would not allow tributes to the two high schoolers in the school yearbook, sparking complaints from family and friends. The school board later voted to let the parents purchase yearbook memorials.

In 2017, students at Irving Middle School in Lincoln received their yearbooks late after school administrators decided to pull a memorial to a student because it violated district guidelines.

And that same year, a compromise was struck in the Waverly school district after students asked to keep a seat at graduation empty for a student who died of juvenile Huntington’s disease, a degenerative brain disorder.

After some back-and-forth between students and family members and school administrators, a moment of silence was held at the Waverly High commencement ceremony and a purple floral arrangement placed on the stage.

Westside has a grief response group, headed by two guidance counselors, that is tasked with providing “emotional and psychological support for students following the loss of a classmate, parent or staff member” and helping the district establish guidelines for how to respond to a crisis, like a student death.

If a student dies, the grief group recommends memorial activities — organizing a park cleanup or establishing a scholarship fund — versus “fixed” memorials like plaques or benches.

The policy states that funeral or memorial services on school grounds will not be allowed and that school events like dances, concerts or banquets can’t be dedicated to deceased students.

“Graduation ceremonies present an especially difficult and sensitive situation for families,” the policy states. “In keeping with the purpose of celebrating the academic achievements of students who participate in the graduation ceremony, empty chairs or moments of silence will not be allowed.”

The policy leaves the door open for alternative arrangements that can be discussed with school principals and counselors.

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Reporter - Education

Erin is an enterprise reporter for the World-Herald. Previously, Erin covered education. Follow her on Twitter @eduff88. Phone: 402-444-1210.

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