Colorado parents, students upset by school's ban on memorial page for student

COLORADO — Parents are protesting a Colorado Springs high school that won’t allow the yearbook staff to include a memorial page for a student who committed suicide in August.

Devin Scott would have been a senior this year at Vista Ridge High School. When yearbook staffers pitched the idea to create a memorial page for Scott, they were told no by their adviser, said Kimberly Striebel, a senior who helps with the yearbook but isn’t on the staff.

When other students learned there wouldn’t be a memorial page for Scott, they started to blame the yearbook staff, Striebel said. Some even retracted their orders. The yearbook staff explained that it was not their decision but the school’s.

Now, an organization created in Scott’s memory is fighting for the page’s inclusion. Devin 4 Life was created to help provide assistance for bullied students, said Rachael Stafford, the group’s vice president.

Last week, Stafford met with the Associate Principal Bruce Grose, one of the crisis hotline counselors and a representative of the superintendent’s office. She said that at the meeting she brought up Colorado’s Student Free Expression Law, which says administrators can’t censor student speech unless it is obscene, libelous or incites illegal behavior.

Monday, school officials said Scott’s mother would be allowed to buy a senior page for $270 that would include “in memory of” as well as Scott’s birth and death date. Scott’s picture will be included with his class in the yearbook, said Stephanie Wurtz, a school spokeswoman.

Stafford said they turned the offer down because they wanted to change the district’s policy rather than be an exception.

“Our decision was mostly because not only are we fighting for Devin but we’re trying to actually change policy,” Stafford said, who questioned whether the school would offer the same compromise to other students if they were not a senior when they died.

The school district has a protocol of not memorializing any student’s death, Wurtz said. When a student died in a car accident a few years ago, his death wasn’t acknowledged with a memorial page but his family was allowed to buy an ad to celebrate his life, she said.

The purchased ad must be approved by the administration and must not memorialize the student’s death, according to the protocol.

The school’s policy comes from the district’s crisis management team, which does not want to draw attention as there may be other students battling depression or similar issues, Wurtz said.

School psychologist Kim Boyd said the school began working on the protocol last year and followed advice from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center and the National Association of School Psychologists recommendations.

“The basis for the reasoning is that there is concern of suicide contagion; typically there are increases of suicide attempts and/or issues when a child does commit suicide in a community,” said Boyd. “Just like typical communities we are now experiencing that issue.”

Wurtz said the school is open to having a discussion about the policy but wants to convey why the policy is in place and keep the student body welfare as the top priority, Wurtz said.

“We are certainly trying to keep the welfare of our entire student body in mind, and that’s our primary concern,” Wurtz said.

Stafford says the district’s policy is being applied inconsistently. At a school board meeting last week, she showed two yearbooks from 2006 and another from last year from other schools in the district that all contained memorial pages. The school board said the policy changed after 2006 to exclude memorial pages.

Striebel said she did not understand why Scott’s mother would have to buy a senior page in order for his memorial to be in the yearbook. Sports pages or other student organization do not have to buy yearbook pages, she said.

“I think everybody is really upset that this is one of those things that has to be bought,” Striebel said.

By Bailey McGowan, SPLC staff writer. Contact McGowan by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.