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Concerned public prompts school board to delay memorial policy vote


The Petersburg School Board delayed a vote on its new memorial policy so board members can receive more feedback from the public.

The policy would, in part, limit the display of student memorials to a two-week period.

The memorial policy has sparked a variety of reactions from community members, some of whom expressing frustration because previous Petersburg High School student Jake Madsen’s memorial would be taken down should the School Board approve the policy.

Madsen passed away after a hunting accident in 2008 and his friends and basketball teammates later erected a memorial in his honor where it is still displayed in the PHS gymnasium.

During the November 10 School Board meeting Madsen’s cousin Mackenzie Peeler spoke on behalf of herself and her family. She said her family is struggling with the idea of seeing the memorial taken down after it’s been up for so long.

“Our hopes would be that the policy committee would reconsider leaving his memorial up and grandfathering it in…because it really does mean a lot to a lot of people in this community,” Peeler said. “It means a lot to the family and to take it down just seems so terrible and so cruel to his memory. He was, after all, a student and a basketball player and a lot of his classmates still reside in Petersburg and his family lives here.”

School Board president Sarah Holmgrain read a statement in which she stated there was never an intent to adopt a policy directed at a specific memorial.

“We need a policy that is responsible, equitable, fair and considerate to all,” Holmgrain said. “It’s unfortunate some recent conversations have centered not on the actual language of the policy, or if it’s sound policy, but rather conversations have been about one specific existing memorial. That was never the intent. It’s always been to produce a sound policy that addresses memorials now and into the future.”

Holmgrain said the board consulted mental health professionals locally as well as around the state, many of which state permanent memorials can have a negative impact on children who are at risk of suicide or experiencing other mental health issues. She added school facilities are a closed learning environment for students who have no choice but to see memorials.

“We have no idea the impact they (memorials) may or may not have on a child now or in the future,” Holmgrain said. “Just because some people may find happiness and joy in seeing the memorial, it does not mean everyone finds that same joy and happiness.”

Three members of the public, including Susan Erickson and Jeigh Stanton Gregor, spoke in support of the proposed memorial policy.

Parent of current PHS students, Anne Tate said she believes schools should not be a place for permanent memorials and recommended the community create a permanent memorial for passed children outside of the school. She also commended the school board for doing a difficult job, referencing criticism on social media from some community members towards the School Board.

“With respect I’d like to say I’m very sorry for the enduring pain and grief that those who have lost a child or family loved one are going through,” Tate said. “It is obvious that this subject has opened old wounds that no parent should have to relive. However, some feedback throughout the community, especially through social media, has been overly critical and seemingly hostile to the school board, administration and possibly anyone who did not grow up here. I don’t think this speaks very well for our community.”

Previous teacher and education administrator John Havrilek also spoke during the meeting and urged the board to not allow any memorials, or amend language in the current policy. He cited liability issues as well as the negative effects memorials could have on some kids.

“…My experience from being in small towns and villages and cities, if you have a student who’s hurting and that needs attention and you’re showing attention to someone who is passed, no matter what the reason…some kids want that recognition and need it desperately and think the only way they’re going to get that is because they’ve seen someone else recognized,” said Havrilek.

School Board member Megan Litster encouraged members of the public to offer feedback on the policy.

“That’s why it’s being tabled,” Lister said. “We’ve received emails with a variety of different viewpoints and they’re helpful and they help guide us in how to proceed, along with the testimony from folks tonight. I hope that people would continue to talk with us and let us know how they’re feeling or if they have ideas, anything we can chat about it in a formal or informal way,” said Litster.

According to the draft policy, memorial activities that can extend beyond two weeks include contributions to or the creation of a scholarship fund, and donations to the deceased member’s family among others.

According to the policy, “Memorials for adults that demonstrated exceptional service to their country and/or community may be displayed, as determined by the Superintendent or their designee.”

Existing school buildings and facilities named in honor of school or community members, along with accompanying images or plaques will remain.

In a separate but related ‘Naming schools and facilities’ policy, naming of facilities and buildings require School Board action and are meant to include persons living or deceased who “Served in the Petersburg School District, who have made significant contributions to the district through longevity of service, exemplary leadership, philanthropic contributions or other significant means,” according to an accompanying draft policy regarding naming schools and facilities.

The full draft memorial and naming policies can be obtained in the PSD District office.

The School Board will vote again for a final approval of both policies during its December 8 meeting.


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