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A controversy over kids wearing T-shirts to celebrate their friend who died from leukemia has sparked anger and soul-searching in Battle Creek, Michigan. On Saturday, sixth-grader Caitlyn Jackson passed away after a three-year battle with the disease. More than a dozen classmates showed up at Lakeville Middle School on Monday wearing orange and blue t-shirts bearing Caitlyn's name, many of which had been decorated by the kids themselves over the weekend. Blue was the 12-year-old's favorite color, and orange is the color designated to promote leukemia awareness. Upon arrival, the students were informed that they would need to either turn the shirts inside out, cover the girl's name with duct tape, or change tops—a decision made by school administrators.
Monday afternoon, Melinda Jackson, Caitlyn's mother, heard that the T-shirts had been barred from school while she was on her way home from the hospital where the girl had died. She told the Battle Creek Enquirer, "That hurt me to the point that I didn't think I could be hurt anymore." Many parents and students were outraged by the decision. "It made me feel really bad that I couldn't express myself for Caitlyn," said Jaidyn Bellinger, an 11-year-old classmate. "I wanted to let people know how bad it feels to lose someone like that." Some parents demanded the resignations of those administrators who had called for the T-shirt ban. That night, after speaking with Caitlyn's family, the school reversed their decision and said that the students could wear the shirts the next day.
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The school declined to comment, but issued a statement on its Facebook page that read, in part, "During this time of grief, we sincerely regret that our actions caused additional stress for Caitlyn's family and friends. Lakeview students, families and staff have supported Caitlyn and her family throughout her battle. Today we heard from students and families the need to allow students to continue showing their support of Caitlyn under these special circumstances by wearing shirts bearing her name."
Stephen Brock, a professor of school psychology and president-elect of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), says the controversy highlights the importance of schools having protocols in place for how to pay tribute to the death of a student and other tragic events. "When you don't have previously established rules that people have been made been aware of, you get into these difficult situations," he tells Yahoo Shine. He explains that while some school districts do have an established plan, surprisingly most don't. He stresses the importance of explaining to the school community, and especially to the students themselves, why certain rules are in place. NASP provides written guidelines about appropriate memorials.
Administrators at Lakeview Middle School say they made their decision based on a crisis management plan that barred "permanent memorials" to deceased students. Brock explains that in the case of suicide, schools should "steer away from yearbook pages, plaques, benches" and other items that permanently memorialize a young suicide victim's death, because there is a small but real chance it could trigger more suicide attempts. However, he adds that in the case of Caitlyn Jackson, "I, personally, would not have a problem with kids wearing T-shirts about an individual who died after a long-term illness."
Melinda Jackson could not be reached for comment, but on Monday night, she expressed her gratitude to the kids who had fought to wear their shirts. After returning home from attending a middle school basketball game with Caitlyn's father, Jeff, and older brother, Nicholas, she posted on Facebook, "Have a feeling this is going to be a long night. Today was very emotional and so not the way we wanted things to happen. I am thankful that Caitlyn had such loving caring friends who stood up for what they believed."
— Sarah B. Weir
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