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HS Visit by First Lady Draws Complaints

A Kansas high school senior has started an online petition drive in hopes of encouraging school officials to rethink their decision to have first lady Michelle Obama speak at graduation next month in Topeka amid concerns that seating may be limited.

Taylor Gifford, 18, said Friday that she decided to start her petition after students and parents expressed concern that Obama’s visit would alter graduation plans, including limiting seating for family and friends.

Michelle Obama Bangs
First Lady Michelle Obama (Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images)

“I really would like it to have a peaceful solution, but there is so much misinformation going on,” Gifford said.

The school district announced Thursday that the first lady would speak at a ceremony May 17, 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. He said meetings were planned Friday with district and high school officials to work out the logistics and planning for the event.

“We will have a clearer picture of what’s going on,” Harbaugh said.

School officials plan to combine graduation ceremonies and hold them in an 8,000-seat arena. Harbaugh said no decision has been made on how many tickets would be allotted to each student.

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.

Tina Hernandez, who spoke at a school board meeting Thursday night, said Obama’s visit will take away from the importance of the day for her son, Dauby Knight, who graduates from Topeka High.

“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.”

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 suggests separate ceremonies with Obama speaking at one and the address being replayed at the other.

“We have been in school for 13 years and we deserve the right to walk across the stage,” she said.

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.

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