Richmond Public Schools seniors outside their graduation ceremony. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
By Darlene Johnson / Capital News Service
Graduation is a month away for approximately 90,000 Virginia high school seniors. For some, that milestone is cut short by tragedy.
When a high school student dies before graduation, it can be difficult for a family to obtain a posthumous diploma.
State lawmakers this recent General Assembly session passed House Bill 1514 to require the Board of Education to waive certain graduation requirements for senior students who die before graduation. The bill allows posthumous diplomas to be awarded at the request of parents if the student was in good standing in their senior year.
However, these waivers can still be considered on a case-by-case basis, according to the bill.
Previously, state code only required such diplomas to be awarded if they were initiated by the Board of Education or requested by a local school board.
Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, introduced the measure after the mother of a murdered Thomas Jefferson High School student reached out for assistance with her son’s goal to receive his high school diploma, Adams stated. Daveon Elliot was fatally shot in November 2021.
The family was told the school could only award a certificate of completion because he had not met the outlined graduation requirements, Adams stated.
Elliot’s senior yearbook picture had already been taken, the mother told WWBT NBC 12, so she said he should also receive the diploma.
Adams thought a line in the state code could be used for an exception to the requirements. But she said her appeals to the school division superintendent, governor and secretary of education were unsuccessful.
As the bill progressed, Adams said she heard from other families who were thankful for the bill, which unanimously passed both chambers of the General Assembly.
Amber Holsinger-Staton is the mother of Nicholas Coleman, a Prince George High School student who died in August 2021, right before his senior year started. Coleman was diagnosed with brain cancer a year prior. He completed work through an individualized education program.
“He was very sick and he did what he could,” Holsinger-Staton said.
Her family did not get the closure they deserved at Coleman’s would-be graduation, she said. The school told Holsinger-Staton that graduation was a time for celebration and they did not want it to be a memorial, which she said upset Coleman’s peers.
School administrators sometimes worry that commemorative activities could upset students and staff, according to the Coalition to Support Grieving Students, a part of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. But the death itself is what upsets students most, not discussions about the death, according to the coalition, which argues students need to be allowed to plan the activities to honor their lost friends as part of the grief process.
“I get that graduation is a time of celebration, but these kids also lost somebody,” Holsinger-Staton said.
Peers can heal through the honoring of deceased students, Adams stated. Commemoration would “add to the occasion and make it more meaningful for all.”
After Coleman’s girlfriend went to the news, Prince George High School offered to leave a seat with flowers and a cap and gown for Coleman at his would-be graduation. Students also had a moment of silence.
Holsinger-Staton was denied what she really wanted — an honorary diploma. The diploma would have given her some closure, she said, adding something should be in place for students who die junior or senior year. She also believes it would be beneficial if the bill was retroactive.
The bill could be expanded to other high school grade levels in the future, Adams stated.
“If nothing else, for the families going forward, I think it’s the most important thing,” Holsinger-Staton said.
Tammy Gweedo McGee’s son Conner Guido died in a car crash on the night of his homecoming dance in October 2019. He was a junior. His mother adapted the spelling of her last name to reflect her son’s nickname, “Gweedo.”
Guido maintained a 3.7 GPA and was active in many school sports at Tabb High School in Yorktown. It was “heart-wrenching,” she said, to know he could not graduate with his friends.
Gweedo McGee hopes “parents who have been robbed of the opportunity to see their child at graduation” can benefit from posthumous diplomas, as well as empty chairs at graduation to honor their children.
The school had a celebration of life for Guido on the school soccer field. There were other recognitions that Gweedo McGee requested. She asked to pay for a bench on the soccer field or to plant a tree in her son’s honor, but the school told her they wanted to be consistent with commemorative actions, she said. A friend of Guido’s was also denied a request to allow “honor tassels” similar to club tassels like the National Honors Society and Key Club.
The Coalition to Support Grieving Students suggests commemorative actions such as reading names at graduation, possibly followed by a moment of silence, or the designation of a yearbook page in honor of the student. The coalition suggested schools avoid things like naming buildings, planting trees or placing plaques in school hallways to honor students if they are unable to apply these measures consistently to future deaths.
The school ultimately offered memorial pins for students to wear on their caps and gowns, but they would not allow an empty seat at graduation in case it retraumatized students, Gweedo McGee said.
“I’m not sure that there’s a great adjective for the pain that I felt inflicted upon me unnecessarily by a simple request to honor my deceased son at what would have been his graduation,” she said.
Any student who dies in good standing should be recognized, Gweedo McGee said. She was disappointed in the school district, she added, but turned to advocacy to make a difference.
Gweedo McGee has helped pass two bills. Senate Bill 78 required an additional 90-minute parent and student driver education component to the classroom portion of its driver education program. The requirement is for the Northern Virginia area but encouraged outside of that planning district. The bill also requires education around the dangers of distracted driving.
HB 1918 requires driver education to cover the dangers of distracted driving and speeding. It also requires students to provide evidence of a valid driver’s license when applying for a school parking permit, and a standardized application form was created.
Gweedo McGee also created a website to allow teenagers to anonymously report unsafe behavior of peers in an effort to save lives.
“While I’m left on this Earth, I will never stop honoring my son and using his tragedy to help others,” Gweedo McGee said.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.