Controversy surrounds NZHS graduation as students try to honor late classmate

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Members of the North Zulch ISD graduating class planned to honor fallen classmate Hannah Wiese at this year’s ceremony, but have received resistance on the matter by NZISD officials.

Each year, the district’s graduation features a video honoring the class before the students hand out flowers to their parents. Students had planned to include Weise in the video and hand out purple flowers to her parents. Purple was Hannah’s favorite color.

They also expressed a desire to include an empty chair amongst the graduating students to honor Hannah. According to Celeste Wiese Okonski, Hannah’s mother, all of the ideas were allowed by the district before they backtracked on the chair proposal last week. The original idea to honor Hannah at the ceremony came from her friends, not the family.

“Last Monday, I got a call from (Principal Johan Osth) saying that they were not going to do the chair, but would instead do a bunch of other stuff,” said Okonski. “But that is not what the students wanted.”

There were also plans to award a memorial scholarship in the girl’s name to an NZISD graduate.

The “other stuff” suggested by the administration included a purple flower arrangement that would be displayed next to the podium.

NZISD Superintendent Alan Andrus declined any comment when contacted on the matter. A statement by the district provided to TV stations covering the story over the weekend said “The District is currently contemplating the best way to memorialize Hannah while also continuing to celebrate the wonderful successes of our seniors with the students’ best interest in mind. Our thoughts continue to be with the family as they grieve for the loss of their loved one.”

“All of these other schools do things like this and it has not been an issue, so why is there is issue for this?” said Okonski. “Especially when they told them that they could have it at first and then took it away. It has turned into this big ordeal and, in my opinion, it has become a huge distraction.”

According to Okonski, the attitude on social media and among the senior students is a positive one. There were rumors that certain parents in the class thought it would be a distraction, but Hannah’s mother does not believe this to be the case either.

“Everybody seems to agree that she should have a chair,” said Okonski. “The seniors all have a group chat and all of them agreed to it, even the ones who are newer and did not know Hannah. The kids asked their parents and there was no disagreement from them as far as I know.”

There was a meeting between the students and the administration on Wednesday last week and the students do not appear to be budging on their request for a chair. As of the weekend, it was still unclear what final route the district would take on the matter.

“They have my daughter’s name on all of the softball t-shirts and are making money off of that,” said Okonski. “Am I complaining about that? Of course not. But you are going to use her name and have all of her memorabilia displayed in the gym, but you will not honor her one last time at graduation for her friends?”

Wiese died after an ATV rollover the weekend before school began in 2016. On the first day of school that year, faculty and students gathered for a prayer vigil to memorialize the presumptive sophomore.

“When I got here this morning, I just wanted to see her one more time,” said then NZHS Principal Rick Panter during the vigil. “It’s just not fair. We have to be a family right now because we need each other.

“This school is going to change and we’re going to get so much better. I think the thing that hurts me the worst is that Hannah won’t be here to share it with us. We’re here for you. Hannah, we love you and we miss you.”

As a freshman, Wiese lettered in volleyball, softball, and basketball, and was later honored as newcomer of the year in 2015. The school’s athletic director, Marshall Earnhart, promised at the 2016 vigil to retire the number she wore in those sports.

“Whatever jersey that Hannah wore, we’re going to retire, and we’re going to make a place for it in our trophy case,” he said.

The graduation for the 2019 NZHS class is scheduled for May 31 in the school’s gymnasium.

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