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OHS students lead charge to protocol change

Olivia Flores, owatonna, death, students, empty chairs, owatonna high school, dylan lauwers
Seniors will honor deceased classmates at graduation
Kay Fate, Staff Writer

Passion plus adversity, it’s been said, often leads to change – and the Owatonna High School Class of 2024 is leading the way.

“You could definitely feel the heaviness,” said Kory Kath, OHS principal. “There was just a definite weight. This is a sad, sad time for all of our students and staff, especially those who were particularly close to Olivia.”

He was talking about Olivia Flores, the OHS senior who died May 19 of injuries she sustained in a crash the day before in Rochester.

The outgoing 18-year-old was a positive force throughout the school, a leader on cheerleading teams and many other areas of her life.

But, Kath said, her death “also brings up the loss of other students we’ve had; namely, for this class, Dylan.”

That’s Dylan Lauwers, who was a freshman at OHS when he took his life in April 2021.

“As a principal, you never want to get that phone call,” Kath said, “that message that one of your students has passed away. I joke that I’m kind of the dad to 1,500 students, and there’s a responsibility of ‘how do I support everyone?’”

In this case, the answer was simple: Listen.

The Monday after Flores died, some students asked to meet with Kath.

“They said, ‘now we’ve had two members of our class that have passed. We would like you to consider adding an additional opportunity to recognize our classmates, by having a chair for them at (graduation),” Kath said.

The issue was, in the past, that hasn’t been allowed.

“The procedure,” he said, “has been to include the student’s name in the (commencement) program, to read their name and offer a moment of silence.”

In addition, the schools offers an honorary diploma to the family, presented privately right after the ceremony.

“We reach out to the family of any deceased student,” Kath said, “to make sure they want to be part of the commencement exercises. It doesn’t matter what grade they passed away in; if they were ever an Owatonna Public Schools student and had a connection to a specific graduating class, we reach out.”

But this time, there was a concerted effort to do more.

Jaedynn Tjon, an OHS senior who was a friend of Flores, took the lead.

“Originally, our friend Dylan, who died in our freshman year, wasn’t going to get a chair,” she said, “because that’s never been (the district’s) policy. We wanted to change that policy, because we thought they deserved a place at our graduation.

“Olivia was only two weeks away, so she should be there,” Tjon said.

“I do my best to always listen to students,” Kath said, “and then I met with our superintendent and said, ‘hey, these are students that are grieving. They make good points about an opportunity to recognize their classmates in a visible way – is this a possibility?’

“And we reached a consensus that yes, it is,” he said.

Still, Kath said, “I cautioned the students that this is not something we have afforded students in the past, so every time we add something, we want to make sure we’re not just putting the preference of one student over another.”

The chairs, which will hold a framed photo of the student, along with their name, “will be part of our protocol moving forward,” he said.

“I think our vision right now is, ‘how do we honor Olivia? How do we honor her spirit? How do we honor Dylan’s spirit?’ and making sure this class – and our staff and students in general – know that we’re a community, and community supports one another,” Kath said.

It was part of the reason for the change in procedure, he said.

“Bringing the suggestion to (Superintendent) Jeff Elstad made it very easy to see that this isn’t about one student, but about honoring all students,” Kath said. “We’re supporting the family of the student that passed, we’re supporting the classmates, and it’s how we support kids moving forward.”

Tjon said her principal’s support in the process was vital.

“I knew he was for it,” she said. “He called us into the office the next day, and said they’d had a conversation about it – and changed it.

“We just wanted to make sure they were still a part of the ceremony,” Tjon said of Olivia and Dylan. “They were originally going to have a moment of silence, but I thought they deserved to be recognized as if they were graduating with us.”

She and Flores met through Young Life, a Christian-based club for young adults.

So what does she think her friend would think of her efforts to effect change?

“I think she’d probably be applauding me,” Tjon smiled.

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