Community Petitions for Honorary Chair at RSHS Graduation, Admin Declines


Media by Maureen Zamenski

Anna Zamenski and Julia McCarthy were longtime best friends, growing and traveling together to destinations like Canada for a French class trip in June 2017. Zamenski is running the paper petition in an effort to honor McCarthy, who passed away in August 2018, and keep her memory alive with an empty chair at the RSHS graduation. “The chair wouldn’t be big or flashy, I know she wouldn’t have liked that,” Zamenski said. “It would be more discreet and meaningful.”

Julia McCarthy was a fun, sarcastic best friend to Anna Zamenski, Rockwood Summit High School (RSHS) senior, since they were in kindergarten. 

“There was never a dull moment with Julia, and I never got bored or felt uncomfortable,” Zamenski said. “She was my favorite person to hang around.”

Their time together was cut short after McCarthy passed away by suicide in August 2018, prior to her sophomore year at RSHS. 

Family and friends of McCarthy, including Anna and Anna’s mother, Maureen, requested for the school to reserve an honorary empty chair at the June 1 graduation ceremony, but school administration denied their request. 

This motivated Anna and other friends of McCarthy to create a paper and online petition. Anna received at least 200 signatures on her paper petition when initially distributed at school. One petition on has amassed more than 33,180 signatures as of Monday, May 10, to advocate for the chair of remembrance. 

It’s turned into a battle with the school, which wasn’t a battle we wanted, but it was a battle we’re taking on.

— Maureen Zamenski

Maureen and Anna said they were told by RSHS administration there will be a moment of silence for McCarthy, but Maureen said those who knew McCarthy would not accept this alternative. 

McCarthy was a private person, who did not like to be the center of attention, Maureen said, and the empty chair would be a discreet, quiet gesture. Anna wanted people to remember how McCarthy lived, not how she died.

“It’s turned into a battle with the school, which wasn’t a battle we wanted, but it was a battle we’re taking on,” Maureen said. “I don’t think they are going to give in, but in reality, nobody’s going to win this.”

RSHS Principal Dr. Emily McCown said their best practice to recognize all those who lost their lives is through a graduation script, such as a moment of silence, rather than a physical memorial. 

“We always want to make sure we are creating an environment that’s healthy for all of our kids for the graduation ceremony,” McCown said.

A moment of silence, she said, would allow everyone to pause and remember those not in attendance. 

“If it is a class that lost a student, we also say, ‘including one of their classmates’,” Dr. McCown said. “When you’re sitting by something physical, you never get a moment to move on because you’re always reminded of it.”

Several years ago, RSHS students honored other classmates who passed in a candle-light vigil at their graduation, and Dr. McCown said the school’s intention is always to honor students. With permission from McCarthy’s parents, McCarthy’s name will be mentioned prior to the moment of silence in this year’s graduation. 

What you don’t want to do is remind them of that on a night that’s a celebration of and recognition of their accomplishments.

— Todd Minichiello

Dr. McCown suggested students consider other options to create their own experiences and honor their friends, like a family celebration or an honorary activity in the local community.

Coordinator of K-12 Guidance Counseling Todd Minichiello said their practice is in place to avoid triggering students’ negative emotions as others could be experiencing grief from loss.

“What you don’t want to do is remind them of that on a night that’s a celebration of and recognition of their accomplishments,” Minichiello said. “Unfortunately, we rarely have a graduation where a student hasn’t passed from that graduating class, so this could get overwhelming for families.”

Mental health professionals generally advise against permanent memorials, he said, and RSD has good communication with families to meet their requests.

Minichiello said a student’s cause of death — in this case, suicide — would not play a role in recognizing or memorializing a student in a manner that would respect the family’s of the deceased student’s wishes.

 The school will always prioritize the family of the deceased student’s wishes, Minichiello said. For instance, if only students and friends of the deceased student requested an empty chair, not the family, the school would side with the family.

“We don’t want to add to the family’s grief or re-victimize them,” Minichiello said. “If one part of the family wanted recognition and one part didn’t, we would do our best to not make it worse for the family who didn’t want that recognition.”

The Board of Education (BOE) has a policy that pertains to student or staff member deaths, Policy 1472 Memorial Protocol, but it does not specifically address leaving empty chairs in remembrance at graduation.

Hanna Huynh, RSHS senior, said she was best friends with McCarthy in high school.

“She kind of made me who I am because I would always go to her if I was feeling depressed, and she would give me so much support and encouragement,” Huynh said. “She was always smiling, always laughing.”

We are fighting this hard because we wish that she was here.

— Hanna Huynh

After hearing about the plan to request a chair of remembrance for McCarthy, Huynh created the petition. She said the chair, whether empty or with a cap and gown, would symbolize Julia is still with them.

Huynh said many RSHS seniors have signed her online petition, and the school should reevaluate their decision based on this sense of agreement among the Class of 2021.

“We are fighting this hard because we wish that she was here,” Huynh said.

When Anna administered the initial paper petition, she said many RSHS seniors were not aware McCarthy had passed. 

At least three RSHS students died by suicide within 2018, including McCarthy, according to Dr. McCown. The administration has worked with mental health professionals, their guidance department and West County Psychological Associates for suicide postvention trainings

Maureen said she hopes the support the petitions garnered can translate into a positive outcome for RSD students, like an increase in suicide awareness and prevention in schools. 

Jocelyn McCarthy, Julia’s mother, said she called the school administration at least twice to request an empty chair, but she doesn’t want to give up. Even in the face of denial, she is thankful for the love and support shown by the Zamenskis and the local community for her daughter.

“It’s really hard for me, for everybody,” Jocelyn said. “I don’t know what to say anymore, but Julia deserves a chair. I don’t know why it’s so difficult to do that.”