Morgan Jones | Design Editor
“Last night, the most beautiful soul you’d ever cross paths with lost her battle with her mind and [with] the world,” a high school senior said in an Instagram post honoring her sister, a 13-year-old Avon student who took her own life on Oct. 5.
In the following days, the post amassed nearly 500 comments expressing support and condolences from the surrounding community. A social media tag dedicated to the middle schooler trended as many students used the platform to share stories highlighting their own struggles with mental illness. Other students wore red, the deceased student’s favorite color, to raise awareness.
“[The suicide] was like a reality check for all students in every school,” senior Naïka Vernick said in an interview on Oct. 10 with WTHR Channel 13 news.
In light of feeling a deeply personal connection to the situation, Vernick decided to take action: with the help of senior Isabelle Medjeski, Vernick organized a student walkout rallying for better mental health resources for students. Medjeski was given the additional opportunity by administrators to address the student body during a free resource period.
Assistant principal Kellie Rodkey said that, in her experience, the school has provided many helpful mental health resources to students.
“Students are asking for increased communication, and I totally agree,” Rodkey said. “We’re not perfect at it, but I just don’t think we’ve been given credit, especially given how guidance counselors spend their day. They’ve helped countless kids. Bring Change to Mind [a mental wellness club for students] are things that we have, and there are [online] resources.”
Despite floating rumors of suspension for attendees, more than a hundred students left class to attend the walkout, which was unsanctioned by administrators, on Friday, Oct. 9. Teachers were instructed to record the names of students who chose to participate.
The next day, on Oct. 10, the Avon Community School Corporation publicly issued the following statement:
On Friday, Oct. 9, a group of Avon High School students walked out of the school during the school day. This was not sanctioned by school administrators. During this time, the students were supervised, remained on school property, and were peaceful and calm. We appreciate our students expressing their voices and will continue to value their input to improve mental wellness supports in our community in a positive way.”
Avon High School then transitioned into a district-wide, two-week fall recess period, where administrators released no further comments regarding the walkout; however, shortly after returning to school on Oct. 26, participants each received an official “notice” from administration.
“Our goal is to partner with students, learn from you, and address your concerns while balancing the need for order and safety,” the letter to students stated. “With these goals in mind,” the statement continues, “in lieu of a punitive consequence for leaving the school building without permission, [students] must… attend one mental health panel discussion [on Nov. 4 or 5] or complete an online written reflection.”
One student, who chose to remain anonymous, said they felt that completing the six assignment-long online option was “the definition of busy work”.
“I left even more confused about where to get help during a mental health emergency than before. It wasn’t even close to being helpful,” the anonymous student said. “They just blamed the students who stood up for what they were passionate about. In my opinion, the only justified response would be to tell students “we hear you and we’re going to work to do better”, but instead, [administration] said “we hear you and you’re wrong.”
Was the punishment justified? According to the Supreme Court ruling from Tinker V. Des Moines, school officials must be able to conclude, with evidence, that the student conduct in question “materially and substantially interferes” with normal school operations. Though students leaving class for the walkout could be considered a disruption under this precedent, senior Ethan Larsen said he thinks a punishment wasn’t justified in this particular case.
“The walkout was a remarkable show of dignity and respect,” Larsen said. “Students quietly left the classroom for the last 50 minutes of school to support a mourning family and address a serious issue. To pretend like these actions were somehow harmful, disruptive, or worthy of punishment borders on slander and is entirely irresponsible on the part of administrators. It’s our responsibility to ensure that mental health isn’t crushed under Avon Community School Corporation’s obsession with hiding anything it deems harmful to its public image.”
Avon Superintendent Dr. Scott Wyndham said that a punishment for walkout attendees “isn’t about students standing up for something they believe in.”
“[Being passionate is] a great thing,” Wyndham said. “[A punishment would be] about leaving school grounds, which is a safety concern.”
Larsen said he thinks that it’s important to note that the walkout took place in the student overflow parking lot next to the baseball fields, which is still on school property.
“In 2016, Student Government planned a walkout in support of gun control after the school shooting in Parkland, FL,” Larsen said. “Administrators didn’t punish students then, and they also didn’t leave school grounds.”
Vernick said that administration threatened to suspend her if she went through with leading the protest, despite the district’s public statements in support of increased mental health resources and attention to student concerns.
“I wanted something to be done,” Vernick said. “Mental health is important, and you don’t have to feel alone. There are other ways to get help.”
Please click here for additional mental health resources.
Photos by Morgan Jones.