YORK COUNTY — As Tabb High School seniors get ready for the most anticipated day of their high school careers, one student who would have graduated this year will be missing from Monday’s ceremony.
While Conner Guido will not be walking across the stage at York High’s Bailey Field to the cheers of his friends and loved ones, his mother and classmates will still be honoring his memory.
Conner was one of three Tabb High School teenagers who died in a car accident in 2019 while on their way back from the school’s homecoming dance.
The tragedy hit the community hard, and the students’ classmates are still finding ways to remember them.
Conner would have been the first to graduate out of the three, as he was a junior at the time of the crash. His friends, Logan Koontz and Naile Tairov, were both sophomores.
A friend of Conner’s since his days at Tabb Elementary School, Faith Geigley, designed a pin that every senior can wear on their gowns at graduation. She also designed a mask for the seniors and faculty to wear that says “Conner Gweedo LL 16” (Conner was known as “Gweedo” to his friends and soccer teammates.) Proceeds from the $5 mask will go towards the Conner Gweedo Memorial Foundation.
Leave a Seat Open
However, Conner’s mother, Tammy Gweedo McGee, said that she has been at battle with York County School Division (YCSD) with her other attempts to honor her son through the school.
McGee wants Conner to be recognized and acknowledged with his graduating class, but the school division has opted to honor him in a more subtle manner.
“Their efforts to recognize an 11-year veteran of the York County public schools is to have a memorial flower arrangement and a moment of silence,” she said. “They will not call his name, they will not hold a seat for him, they will not have a picture for him.”
McGee said that Conner’s classmates have bought lime green honor cords to wear with their gowns as a nod to his jersey color, but the division will not allow the students to wear them.
These rules come from a policy introduced by YCSD earlier in the semester regarding memorials for students and staff who have passed away.
YCSD spokesperson Katherine Goff said that as the division experienced the loss of students over the past several years at various periods of their K-12 academic careers, division leadership realized they could no longer manage memorials on a case-by-case basis.
The division began researching model practices and policies across the country, as the Virginia School Board Association did not already have policies regarding memorializing staff and students.
Goff said that the division referred to the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement for procedures and policies on how to address memorials.
Dr. Jim Carroll, YCSD’s Chief Operations Officer, said that YCSD began working on standard operating procedures shortly after the car accident that claimed the lives of the three Tabb H.S. students, but with the interruptions of the fire at the Grafton Complex and then COVID-19, it took time for the division to create a policy.
The first reading of this policy was given at the May school board meeting and will up for a final approval later this month. Public comment can be made through that process and the board can either suggest changes. Until the board votes on this policy, it will not be in effect.
Dr. Carroll said that in the interim, the division will follow the recommendations of this policy for this year’s graduation.
A Policy Over a Seat
The policy governs multiple areas, including temporary memorials, permanent memorials and graduation.
“Our guiding principles on developing a policy such as that is to be respectful, supportive, and just really helping guide the appropriate ways to express grief in that school setting or at school events,” Goff said.
According to the policy, temporary school memorials must be approved by the school and can include banners, flower arrangements and pictures. Permanent school memorials “are limited to endowments and scholarships administered by the York Foundation for Public Education, educational or community service programs with educational significance, and the donation of books or similar items with educational significance to the school and/or division.”
“They wouldn’t let me plant a tree [for Conner], have a plaque in the hallway, retire his soccer [jersey] number,” McGee said. “The only way York County Public Schools will recognize a child passed while attending their schools is if you do a scholarship. It’s horrendous.”
As for graduation, the policy states multiple ways for a staff member or student to be recognized, including a moment of silence at the beginning of the ceremony, plants or flower arrangements placed on the stage, and pins worn by members of the class that must be submitted to the division for approval beforehand.
Cords honoring deceased students are not permitted, as graduation cords are firmly only for the academic regalia.
“You have to understand that in more than this situation, people will request to create a cord from outside organizations and those almost routinely get denied, because those are supposed to be tied to the academic accomplishments within the school,” Dr. Carroll said. “It has to be reflective of your time in high school academically.”
But McGee believes that Conner’s class should have a way to feel like their friend is graduating with him.
“What harm is it to leave a seat? What about having his picture on the steps so every senior could go by and tap his picture and tell him they love him and miss him? They all loved Conner, And [the division is] making it extremely difficult for these seniors to honor him,” she said.
“When we look at the guiding principles and the milestones of a graduation ceremony, it’s a delicate balancing act of honoring the loss of a member of the class, as well as recognizing the needs of the school community as to how to respect their own personal celebrations during that event,” Goff replied in answer to an inquiry about an empty chair memorial.
“We don’t want students to feel we’ve forgotten an individual, but at the same time recognizing that not everyone would be prepared for that grief to take place or to be triggered and retraumatized during such a public event,” she added.
Neither Goff nor Dr. Carroll directly addressed why a chair cannot be left open for Conner. It also must be noted that the policy that has yet to be voted on regarding memorials does not address this, either.
McGee said that while she knows the students were traumatized by the deaths, she believes that an empty seat or photo would not minimize the graduation for everyone else, as they would want to honor Conner.
While McGee may not be seeing her son walking across the stage and accepting a diploma Monday, she will be outside Bailey Field with Conner’s car, a mobile billboard to promote safe driving and remind the community of who Conner was.
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