School & District Management

School Shooting Survivors at Odds With District Over Graduation Cords

By Jennifer Chambers, The Detroit News — May 16, 2023 4 min read
Oxford High School student return to school after they walked out of classes on May 26, 2022, in Oxford, Mich., to show their support for the Uvalde, Texas community and the recent mass shooting that occurred at an elementary school. A judge says a lawsuit can go forward against a Michigan school district that is accused of making poor decisions before a teenager killed four fellow students in 2021.
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Orange is the color of the gun violence prevention movement—and it’s the color of a special commencement cord a group of 2023 Oxford High School graduates plans to wear to symbolize they are survivors of gun violence as they cross the stage and obtain their diploma this week.

Oxford school officials are not having it. The district, where a school shooting in 2021 killed four students and injured seven others, first asked the seniors not to divert from the traditions of commencement. Then, the district offered a “specially designed navy and gold Wildcat honor cord to its graduation wear.”

The battle between the kids and school leaders has been brewing for weeks, with graduation looming Thursday.

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Jonathon Parker, pictured on the chair, should have walked across the graduation stage with classmates from the Deer Valley High School Class of 2022 last week in Antioch, Calif. But he was shot and killed by another student more than two years ago in the school parking lot.
Courtesy of Jonathon Parker's family

Olivia Curtis, a graduating senior and close friend of the St. Juliana family, whose daughter Hana, 14, was killed in the school shooting on Nov. 30, 2021, said the orange cord is important to her for two reasons.

“First, it honors Hana. And second, since commencement is supposed to be about the things that you’ve accomplished, wearing the orange cord to represent surviving a school shooting just feels right. It’s part of who we are,” Curtis said.

The students have the support of several parents, including Marisa Prince, who ordered 200 orange cords from the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety and is handing them out for free to the students.

“We as adults we put them in this position where they have no choice to become activists on this issue because of what they lived through,” Prince said. “Some students have chosen to champion the issue of mass shootings and gun violence because of what they have experienced and they want to prevent this from happening again, due to adults failing to protect them.”

Others, like 2017 OHS graduate Olivia Upham, whose brother Keegan survived the attack and is set to graduate on Thursday, emailed the school board telling them high school graduations in Oxford are simply not like those before 2021.

“There is no reversal. However, it is not too late to honor, respect, and bear witness to those who will walk across that stage,” Upham wrote in her email. “Please, allow these children to be seen, to honor their own journeys in the way THEY see fit, and encourage them to wear the orange cords if they so requested them. To compare this to a political agenda is ludicrous, laughable, and shameful.”

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The 2022 Oxford High School graduating class honored their fallen classmates in different ways, with signs, photographs and in speeches. Two seats were left empty for the 17-year-old seniors who were among those slain in the attack: Madisyn Baldwin and Justin Shilling. Their families were presented the teens’ robes and school honors in large frames.

Oxford superintendent Vickie L. Markavitch said on Monday keeping the focus on students and their accomplishments was behind her decision and that special recognition was being given to the graduating classes with the new honor cord in school colors of navy and gold.

“The reason I am not approving or endorsing the orange cord that is being distributed by an outside organization is because the tradition of Oxford High School’s Graduation has been to keep the focus solely on students and their accomplishments,” Markavitch said. “My endorsement of other symbolic graduation wear would set a precedent that could erode that tradition and more importantly the focus on students and their accomplishments.”

… Wearing the orange cord to represent surviving a school shooting just feels right. It’s part of who we are.

Some graduating seniors initiated a tribute to OHS students Tate Myre, a junior who died in the school attack and was expected to graduate in 2023, and Daphne Beethem, a senior who died in a car accident on April 13. At graduation rehearsal on Tuesday, seniors will have the opportunity to accept a tassel charm with pictures of both students that they may attach to their graduation cap, school officials said.

On May 9, the district sent a message to families about students who want to wear a symbol “acknowledging the incomparable challenges they have had to face in their journey to achieve their high school diploma.”

Markavitch announced the district added a specially designed navy and gold honor cord to its graduation wear.

“The Wildcat honor cord will symbolize the resilience and strength these students have had to find within themselves, forging ahead to complete their graduation requirements while healing from the trauma and after-effects of the November 30, 2021 tragedy,” the email said.

Those cords will be handed out to seniors at graduation rehearsal.

Oxford parent Chalmers Fitzpatrick said she was angry with the district over their position on the cord.

“These free tassels represent surviving a mass shooting and it takes maturity and courage to acknowledge being a survivor. You cannot pretend it didn’t happen by refusing to let kids, teachers, staff, substitutes, etc. wear orange,” Fitzpatrick wrote in her email to the board. “In fact, the school should hand these out along with the program to all attendees who wish to wear orange and support our children. I believe the statement by the school was that wearing Orange is political? There is NOTHING political about being shot at while in school!”

Related Video: How a School Shooting Survivor Found Healing in Activism

Copyright (c) 2023, The Detroit News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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