Graduation in Richland, Washington, will include the names of students who have died

Callan Chastain, a Hanford High School student who died last year, will be recognized by his name among 2022 alumni early next weekend.

Originally the Richland School District planned to allocate one empty chair at graduation to represent all students who died before graduation. But no photos or other confessions, prior to Chastain’s family’s frustration, were planned.

But on Thursday in a letter to the families, school officials said plans had changed to also give “proper recognition” to the victims, and they would read out their names to their families.

“This is an important and difficult issue, and the district and school authorities are committed to respectfully and responsibly supporting the needs of students, families and society,” the unsigned letter said.

The effects of change six graduation ceremonies next weekend, including the two largest in the area, Hanford High and Richland High. The change will only affect ceremonies this year, and school administrations plan to consider it in the future.

But it was good news for the Chastain family.

“I am very pleased with this decision,” Jim Chastain said. “I think it will help parents more than just us, and I think that’s a really important outcome.”

Caelan Chastain died by suicide in 2021. His classmates started Fr. Petition Change.org recently in an attempt to get for him his own “empty chair”. By Thursday, the petition had been signed by about 1,900 people, including students, parents and teachers.

Some have argued that by not acknowledging Chastain’s death, it continues to stigmatize suicide. But others are concerned that too much advertising could glorify and even encourage death by suicide.

History of the Tri-City Herald on Sunday, Chastains described in detail the school district’s frustration with honoring the memory of students at graduation ceremonies.

Graduation suicide Chastain son
Jim Chastain and his wife Miriam are holding a portrait of their 17-year-old son Callon, a Hanford High School student who committed suicide in February 2021. They fought for their son’s recognition at this month’s graduation ceremony. Bob Brody bbrawdy@tricityherald.com

Jim Chastain said having an empty chair without acknowledging his son’s existence was an “empty gesture” and his family felt he was not even present at the ceremony.

Feedback from family, community members and students eventually led to change. The county said it has a problem with the question, “How can RSD best meet the needs of the community in addressing grief and supporting healing while keeping graduation on the day of celebration for the 2022 class?”

Ty Beaver, Richland’s director of communications, said Thursday that their standard practice is based on “years of training and advice” from mental health experts and consultants, including Forefront Suicide Prevention program.

Not every employee in the county yet Mental Health Assistance Team Agreeing with the change in the graduation ceremony, Beaver said they recognize that there is a “maritime change” at the national level in how best to deal with grief over childhood deaths.

“It wasn’t an arbitrary or very easy discussion,” Beaver said. “The best practice has been in the past that you don’t. There is now conflicting evidence as to whether this is true or not. ”

“Our ultimate goal is to make graduation a joyous occasion, and we ask the entire community to join us to make it happen for the 2022 class and for our future graduates,” the letter said on Thursday.

This story was originally published June 2, 2022, 5:32 p.m.

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Eric Rosen is a civil liability reporter who joined the Tri-City Herald in February 2022. He previously worked for the Daily Chronicle in Lewis County, covering education, the county government and the legislature. He graduated from Central Washington University in 2018.

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