Waverly High School seniors to honor classmate at graduation despite school policy

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WAVERLY, Neb. (KOLN) - Waverly High School seniors have found a way to honor a fellow student who passed away at their upcoming graduation ceremony.

McKenna Smith passed away last July after battling Huntington's disease for several years.

A statement from the WHS senior class, reads "A purple floral arrangement will be placed on the main stage to recognize McKenna and her fight against Juvenile Huntington's Disease. We will also recognize McKenna and her family during a moment of silence at the beginning of the ceremony."

The student who helped organize the memorial said it was never a question of "if they would have something special at graduation?", the question was, "what was it going to be?"

Hunter Radenslaben is a senior at Waverly High School, Mckenna would have been in the same grade if not for her illness.

"She was someone who was just always happy, and I remember walking down the hallways and she would always want to reach out and give me a hug, she was like that for every student," said Radenslaben.

McKenna was important to the entire 2017 Waverly High Class.

"She was a huge part of our senior class and it's been hard to not have her with us this last year," said Radenslaben.

Waverly students like Hunter are also memorializing McKenna outside of the ceremony. The senior class surprised McKenna's mom with a special cap.

"Each one of the seniors signed, there are 120-some signatures on this cap so it meant a lot," said Amy Dickes, McKenna's mother.

McKenna's mom said she hopes to get a front row seat at graduation Sunday.

"I hope I'm pretty close so I can watch because I know that she will be there in spirit with each and every one of them," said Dickes.

Last week, 10/11 News Reporter Joanna Bouras spoke with McKenna's mother, who was upset the school wouldn't be doing anything special to honor her daughter at graduation because of school policy.

"They were going to do something else and then through more conversations and after yesterday they said no it's policy they can't do anything at all," Dickes, said.

The policy was put in place in 2009. It says memorials aren't allowed if they alter a regular day or schedule, infringe on separation of church and state or contain a picture of the deceased.

After 10/11 News reported the story, it got hundreds of comments on Facebook from people who were upset the school wouldn't allow a memorial at graduation.

Thursday, Waverly Public Schools Superintendent Bill Heimann, sent a statement, on behalf of the Waverly Senior Class to parents, community members and media.

Read the full statement below.

Due to the publicity surrounding the Waverly High School Class of 2017 Commencement ceremony that will take place on May 21, the WHS graduating class wants to inform their families, our staff, community, and alumni about the commencement ceremony. This joint statement by the senior class is being released by the school district to make sure the voice of students is heard. This statement is representative of the collaborative culture at Waverly High School and the ability of students to display leadership and have an impact on our school and community. Our students, staff, and administration were saddened by the death of McKenna Smith in July 2016. During McKenna's time as a student in District #145, she was supported by her classmates, friends, staff, and administration.

Throughout these last several weeks, our senior class has been working alongside administration in finding ways that we can honor McKenna Smith and her family in a respectful and appropriate manner. While we are sensitive to the range of emotions expressed amongst students, McKenna’s family, our community, and our alumni, we also recognize and respect the policies that guide decision-making in our district.

After much discussion and collaboration with administration, we have decided that a purple floral arrangement will be placed on the main stage to recognize McKenna and her fight against Juvenile Huntington’s Disease at our upcoming graduation ceremony. We will also recognize McKenna and her family during a moment of silence at the beginning of the ceremony.

The circumstances surrounding graduation have been difficult. However, it has brought us together, and it has validated the power of our positive culture. Throughout this process, our senior class has been united behind our school, our administration, and each other. Although there may not be agreement surrounding the interpretation of school policy for graduation, as students, we are fortunate to have had our voices heard within our school. We hope that our final experience as high school students will be a special and memorable one for everyone involved, and we will hold McKenna’s memory in our hearts as we move on to our next adventures following high school.