- Associated Press - Friday, January 29, 2016

JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) - The mother of a boy killed in the Joplin tornado nearly five years ago says she’s upset the school district won’t leave an empty chair in honor of her late son during the next commencement.

Zachary Williams was a 12-year-old middle school student when he died in the 2011 tornado that killed 160 other people, and he would have been part of this year’s graduation class.

His mother, Tammy Niederhelman, said she asked Joplin school administrators to include during the next commencement ceremony an empty chair on which Williams’ cap and gown can hang. And that his name is called.

“I’ll never see my son graduate, I know that. I’ll never see him get married. I’ll never hold my grandchildren,” Niederhelman told the Springfield News-Leader (https://sgfnow.co/1Uve9zV) for a story Friday. “This is very important to me - to have a seat for him.”

But Niederhelman said school officials told her it’s against policy to allow the empty chair at graduation.

Joplin High School’s principal, Kerry Sachetta, told The Associated Press on Friday that while school administrators are sympathetic to Niederhelman, noting that “nobody wants to be in that position she’s in, losing a child.”

But Sachetta said he vetted Niederhelman’s request which teachers and various students in the senior class, who helped decide to stick with the tradition of offering a commencement moment of silence for any students who die while enrolled in the high school.

Sachetta said the district plans to list the names of Williams and other students killed by the tornado on a big screen during the graduation ceremony and have a moment of silence for them.

With that, “we believe we’re honoring Zach,” Sachetta said. “We feel we are extending a gesture here because we do understand there’s pain. We can’t imagine the pain or suffering she’s going through, or what anyone else is going through” in the city trying to rebuilding from one of the most-destructive tornadoes in U.S. history.

Some students, the principal said, were adamant that the ceremony be a celebration, not a memorial service, “but honoring Zach and other victims in this way makes a point we don’t forget.”


Information from: Springfield News-Leader, https://www.news-leader.com

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