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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Given their druthers, some Kansas high school students and their parents said they would rather keep their graduation day just a family affair instead of expanding the guest list to include first lady Michelle Obama.
The criticism erupted after the Topeka, Kansas school district announced Thursday that the first lady would speak at a combined graduation ceremony for five area high schools on May 17 at an 8,000-seat arena. Parents attending a school board meeting urged it to reconsider the decision. Despite the reputation of Kansas as a strong Republican state, some parents and students said the complaints were less about politics and more about the lack of seating in the arena for all their relatives.
Tina Hernandez, parent of Topeka High School senior Dauby Knight who attended the meeting, said Friday that Obama’s visit takes away from the importance of graduation day.
“I’m a single mother who has raised him for 18 years by myself,” Hernandez said. “I’ve told him education is the only way out. This is one of the biggest days of their lives.
“They’ve taken the glory and shine from the children and put on Mrs. Obama. She doesn’t know our kids.”
The district announced that Obama was speaking to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision that made school segregation unconstitutional. Ron Harbaugh, spokesman for the Topeka school district, said officials had been trying to get the president or first lady to speak at graduation as a tie-in with the anniversary.
Messages seeking comment from the first lady’s office in Washington were not immediately returned Friday.
Harbaugh said meetings were being held Friday with district and high school officials to work out the logistics and planning for the event, including how many tickets each family would be allotted.
“We will have a clearer picture of what’s going on,” Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh said the district would place a priority on seating students and their families. One option would be to have the event broadcast in an overflow room at a hotel adjacent to the graduation arena.
Taylor Gifford, 18, started an online petition Thursday evening to urge the district to reconsider its plans. She and the more than 1,200 people who had signed it expressed concern that Obama’s visit would alter graduation plans, including limiting seating for family and friends.
“I really would like it to have a peaceful solution, but there is so much misinformation going on,” Gifford said.
Gifford said her initial reaction to the news was excitement, saying she was “freaking out” about the prospect of the first lady speaking at graduation. When rumors of limited tickets surfaced, Gifford felt like the focus was being shifted from the students to Obama.
“People think it’s a great opportunity, but it’s the graduates’ time. They are getting that diploma that they worked so hard for,” Gifford said. “Families are feeling that they are being cheated out of the loved ones special day.”
Abbey Rubottom, 18, a Topeka High senior, described herself as a “die-hard Democrat” but doesn’t like the idea of Obama sharing the stage with graduates.
“No disrespect for the first lady, and it’s amazing that she wants to come speak, I just think it doesn’t belong at graduation,” Rubottom said.
Rubottom suggested separate ceremonies with Obama speaking at one and the address being replayed at the other.
Some people have said bringing in the first lady politicizes the graduation. Others have suggested that if she wants to mark the Brown anniversary, she could just visit the historic site that commemorates the decision, which is just few blocks from the graduation venue.
The Brown site is housed in a former all-black school where the lead plaintiff’s daughter and another plaintiff’s child in the desegregation case were students. It tells the story of the 1954 Supreme Court decision.