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First Lady to speak in Topeka

5/16/2014

By HANNAH SWANK

KU Statehouse Wire Service

TOPEKA -- The news of Michelle Obama's commencement address to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision was greeted with an online petition to prevent the first African-American First Lady from addressing Topeka Public Schools students.

Topeka High School seniors Taylor Gifford and Madison Lockhart initiated the petition, which has incited strong reactions from students as well as members of the community. The petition reached a total of 2,760 supporters and cited issues of economic strain and dissatisfaction with limited seating as the reasons for wanting traditional graduation ceremonies.

"Epic Fail USD 501," one commenter said on the change.org petition. "You seriously need to rethink this for the sake of all those kids who should be the main ones honored."

The "epic fail" was rendered when Obama's staff announced that, instead of a combined Topeka Public Schools graduation Saturday, the first lady only would speak at a senior recognition ceremony today in order to accommodate Saturday's previously scheduled, separate commencements.

"The intent of the two young ladies was to ensure that more seating was available for their families and friends at graduation," Topeka High School Assistant Principal Dot Mallon wrote in an email. "Instead of specifically clarifying those wishes, this opened the door for other issues to overshadow the original message."

Jordan Cain, a THS senior and captain of the soccer team, said she, and many other students at Topeka High, find the national media attention embarrassing for the school district and the city of Topeka. Cain said the environment at school has been so hostile even the word "graduation" became a point of contention.

"This situation became such a big deal and impacted our class so much that it negatively affected our relationships with each other," Cain said. "Most people were looking forward to this huge honor, and it got blown out of proportion. It makes us look selfish and it makes Topeka look bad."

Hostility boiled over when Gifford and Lockhart were threatened with fights approximately three weeks ago and campus police had to intervene.

Lockhart said the environment kept her from attending school for several days, and she was absent on the day it was announced the first lady would move her speech to allow each of the five district high schools separate ceremonies.

"It says a lot for my public speaking skills and my ability to affect change in my community," Lockhart said.

"It tore us all apart, but in the midst of the anger, my graduating class is excited to welcome her."

While promoting their petition, Gifford and Lockhart also hung posters in the school hallways.

Several students, including THS senior Connor Brennan, were fined after they tore posters off the walls.

"The petition and the girls who started it got a lot more media coverage than they should have," Brennan said.

"Graduation is about embarrassment now, rather than achievement."

Assistant Principal Mallon said the posters became problematic because they were directed at preventing Obama's presence at graduation entirely, instead of focusing on the core goals of the petition.

"When the posters became an attack on an individual, they crossed a line for many of us in the profession," Mallon said.

"A great deal of time was squandered by students, division principals, security officers and parents who dealt with the disruption caused to the school."

Lockhart said the petition never was about politics, but she was concerned about the ticket limitations.

Each graduating senior would have received six tickets, which wouldn't have been enough for Lockhart's large family including step-parents and grandparents.

"My family deserves to see me walk at graduation," Lockhart said. "Everyone gets what they want now, and we still get to say that Michelle Obama spoke at our senior recognition ceremony."

Despite all these issues, Mallon said it does not diminish the honor and pride in Topeka Public Schools to be chosen as the district the first lady will address this year.

"In many ways, the consternation over the graduation plans is indicative of the tremendous emphasis placed upon graduating with a diploma from Topeka High School," Mallon said.

Hannah Swank is a University of Kansas senior from Topeka majoring in journalism.