(ST. JOSEPH, Mo.) Lafayette High School handed out diplomas to a sea of green seniors today, but two names drew more applause than the other graduates.
A fatal car crash in April, killed Darius Harris, and sent Evan Steele to the hospital in critical condition where Steele is still recovering. Harris and Steele were seniors attending Lafayette High School and on track to graduate with their classmates Sunday.
The crowd cheered, blew horns, and clapped for graduating seniors as they crossed the stage. But the loudest cheers came when Steele and Harris's names were called. Family, friends and students broke into thunderous applause for the two boys who never made it to graduation.
It wasn't the ceremony Harris' mom envisioned for her son. It wasn't even close.
"I raised five boys as a single mom," said Darius's mom, Devan Harris. "The twins are the last to graduate."
Devan Harris, Darius's mom, asked the school district if Darius's twin brother, Daveon, could walk across the stage and accept the diploma on his brother's behalf.
"I'm barely holding it together since my son died," said Devan Harris. "I just wanted to honor Darius by having Daveon walk across the stage."
The St. Joseph School District issued a statement on Wednesday denying the request. In the statement, the District said it would leave an empty chair in honor of Darius and his name would be read at the ceremony. In the statement the SJSD cited past practice as the reason for denying Devan Harris's wishes.
"The death of a student is emotional for family, friends, classmates, faculty and staff. It is the District’s responsibility to respond appropriately, sensitively and consistently. This decision to remain consistent with prior practice, in not allowing anyone to walk in place of Darius, was difficult and a decision that drew a great deal of discussion. To that end, the District’s response reflects the decision moving forward with the deepest respect and empathy for those impacted by such a loss.."
Devan Harris said the District's response to her request was upsetting and deeply hurt her.
"I don't understand," Devan Harris said. "This is the one thing I wanted."
When her son's name was read Sunday at Civic Arena it was met by rounds and rounds of applause. Later, the crowd responded to Evan Steele's name with the same whoops and cheers. An entire community showing support for a graduation day, two boys never got to see.
Read SJSD's full statement below:
The St. Joseph School District extends deep sympathy to the family and friends of Darius Harris.
Harris will be remembered during Lafayette High School’s graduation on Sunday, May 20, 2018 in a way that is consistent with the District’s prior practice. A chair will remain open in memory of Darius. His name will be printed in the program and read during the ceremony and a diploma will be available for his family after graduation.
The death of a student is emotional for family, friends, classmates, faculty and staff. It is the District’s responsibility to respond appropriately, sensitively and consistently. This decision to remain consistent with prior practice, in not allowing anyone to walk in place of Darius, was difficult and a decision that drew a great deal of discussion. To that end, the District’s response reflects the decision moving forward with the deepest respect and empathy for those impacted by such a loss.
“We recognize the grief that comes with a loss, especially the loss of someone so young. We appreciate the attention the community has given Darius’ family regarding this matter and we hope they can find some peace in knowing he will be remembered during graduation as a part of the Lafayette High School family as well,” said Dr. Robert Newhart, SJSD Superintendent.
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