Dr. Clouet: Finding dignity and respect when tragedy strikes

The following commentary was submitted by
Superintendent Dr. Chris Clouet.
The death of students –at any age- is always a cause for heart-ache and reflection for everyone, primarily for the family and for close friends. Such a tragedy can trigger emotions in many, sometimes people who did not even know the deceased.

Grief is something that each individual experiences in a unique way. Moreover, it is experienced differently, depending on the particular situation.

The death of a child, no matter the circumstances, is especially jarring because it is ‘out of order.’ It breaks the natural cycle of life and death all humans are a part of.

Recently, the Shelton community found itself in a maelstrom at the intersection of the untimely passing of two high school students and the proper way to award high school diplomas.

The situation provoked a lot of misperceptions, and in part some flat out false narratives. In many cases it produced more heat than light.

I have no intention of betraying private information shared in confidential conversations, but the fact is I had numerous conversations with the parents of Ed Conklin, who died in a tragic car accident in February of his senior year. We talked about a variety of options for how to honor the memory of their son and what role the school district would play in that. Kristjan Ndoj, who was murdered a few years ago when he was a sophomore, also needed to be remembered.

In Shelton there is no tradition of how and when posthumous diplomas are awarded. It is true that a variety of methods have been used over the last three decades. There have been times when parents received diplomas on the stage at graduation. However, in the majority of the circumstances involving the remembrance of a deceased high school student, that was not the case. A tradition is something that occurs on a regular basis. The annual Shelton-Derby

Football Luncheon is an example of a tradition. Clearly, the dilemma the School District experienced relating to the controversy of how and when to award diplomas to the

two young men referenced demonstrates that we need to establish guidelines. We need to start a tradition.

But how?

In contrast to shouting, the posting of malicious online messages, and amplifying of raw emotions via media, a deliberative process thoughtfully examining the law, examples of what other districts do, and developing a set of criteria is needed. That is precisely what a Board of Education is elected to do.

Among the many considerations-- is there ever a set of circumstances wherein a Board of Education would not allow the awarding of an honorary posthumous diploma? If you think about the news from around the nation over the last decade I believe reasonable people will conclude that yes, there are, on occasion, such circumstances.

In the cases we are discussing, that was not the situation!

The awarding of honorary diplomas, but not an official diploma, was discussed and agreed on. But, for the future, we need guidelines.

On May 9, after the Conklin family had spoken with me and separately with SHS Headmaster Dr. Smith, and not finding satisfaction on how we proposed to honor the memory of their son, I agreed to meet with their legal counsel. Normally, I let lawyers talk to lawyers; but in this case, trying to respect the family, I agreed.

Suffice it to say, we did not reach a resolution.

The next evening, the Board met with me to discuss making a formal proposal. The Board members and I reviewed a variety of potential ways to honor the memories of the deceased students in the context of school ceremonies. I was asked to relay our consensus view to the District’s attorney. On May 11, she sent the family’s attorney a proposal which included a number of things we felt would be dignified and respectful ways to honor the memory of their son, and the other student, including the awarding of an honorary diploma at the prestigious Senior Awards Night, and having a solemn moment of silence at graduation. For days there was no response.

Shortly after that, a campaign was organized to “fight” to have a diploma awarded to the parents on the stage at graduation. The parents have every right to advocate for what they believe, but the confluence of online petitions, many “signed” by people not living in Shelton, vitriolic

Facebook postings, talk radio and local television interviews caused some adults to act out in ways that we would not accept from our students. Let me be clear, not all of individuals who felt that they were supporting the Conklin family displayed rude and crude behavior.

Suddenly the Board was demonized. Lost in the noise was the reality that many local citizens did not agree with the campaign as it evolved. Many individuals took exception to the misguided notion that there were “good guys” and “bad guys” in this. Also lost was the responsibility of the Board to establish a rational precedence, not in the heat of an angry, emotional group setting, but through careful deliberation on how to best handle this type of issue in the future.

On May 26, Mr. Conklin and I spoke by phone. He is a very decent man, and I am sorry to have met him under these difficult circumstances. He and I talked with no lawyers, no media -- just two individuals having a quiet, respectful conversation. We agreed on a number of things, including the reading of their son’s name in the roll call of graduates, and having an empty chair where he would have been seated.

On May 31, I met with Mr. and Mrs. Conklin and Mayor Lauretti, a family friend of theirs for decades. We discussed all of their concerns and the concerns of the district.

It was agreed that what Mr. Conklin and I had agreed to the preceding week would remain in place. In addition, they asked that we forgo a moment of silence at graduation, and, since they would not be participating in the graduation ceremony (but would be viewing it, like other parents), that I present them with a posthumous honorary diploma in their son’s name at the conclusion of the ceremony. It was a calm, thoughtful conversation that acknowledged the reality that deceased students should be remembered in a dignified way, and that there is more than one way to accomplish that.

The Board fully supported this outcome. It is a false narrative, reflected in media more concerned with ratings and advertising revenue, that somebody ‘won’ and somebody ‘lost’. The death of a child results in no winners.

The expression “reasonable people can agree to disagree” applies in this case.

I believe that individuals marching up to the stage at graduation should be students who have fully completed their state and local requirements. I believe, as stated, we should develop clear guidelines for awarding future posthumous diplomas.

Each and every conversation I had with Mr. and Mrs. Conklin was characterized by respect and empathy. That is as it should be.

On June 2, the high school held their Senior Awards Night. The brother of Kristjan Ndoj was awarded an honorary diploma in the name of his late brother. It was solemn. It was heartfelt.

On June 10, the high school graduation was held. It was a dignified ceremony that celebrated the living and honored the dead. As agreed, there were two empty chairs to represent the deceased boys. Their names were read as part of the roll call. When the ceremony ended, I walked over to the Conklin family and presented them with an honorary diploma in remembrance of their son.

We are all saddened by the deaths of Eddy and Kristjan.

It is in the spirit of solemnity and contemplative reflection that we find, in my view, the best ways for schools to honor students we have lost.