(BATTLE CREEK ENQUIRER) - A middle school in Michigan has banned students from wearing University of Tennessee inspired T-shirts honoring a classmate who died after a long battle with cancer.
Lakeview sixth-grader Caitlyn Jackson, 12, died late Saturday at a hospital in Ann Arbor after fighting leukemia for years. Many in the city of Lakeview had rallied around the girl over that time.
On Monday, at least a dozen students showed up in orange or blue shirts, many bearing Caitlyn's name. Blue was Caitlyn's favorite color and orange is the official color honoring leukemia victims (Caitlyn also was a University of Tennessee fan). Some students decorated shirts over the weekend, while others wore shirts they'd picked up at the many fundraisers and other benefits they'd worked in Caitlyn's honor.
But, as students arrived in the memorial shirts Monday morning, school administrators asked them to change the shirts, turn them inside out, or put duct tape over Caitlyn's name.
Melinda Jackson, Caitlyn's mother, said she heard about the t-shirt ban on her way home from Ann Arbor.
"That hurt me to the point that I didn't think I could be hurt anymore," Melinda Jackson said Monday evening.
Jackson is a Lakeview employee, working as a childcare provider.
Students and parents expressed outrage at the district's decision to block the memorial effort.
After Monday's uproar, the district decided late in the day that students would be allowed to wear the shirts Tuesday.
Lakeview administrators made the decision Sunday night that they wouldn't allow T-shirts, but did not notify parents, said Amy Jones, the Lakeview finance director acting as district chief while Superintendent Dave Peterson is out of the country exploring a possible student exchange program.
Jones said the district's decision was based on its "crisis management plan," which she said is "based on a lot of research and expert opinion." The plan specifically bars "permanent memorials" on the research-backed belief that memorials can remind students of their grief and, for some, can make it worse.
Chuck Crider, a retired school administrator helping the district out while Peterson and others are out of the country, said the T-shirts were interpreted as a more permanent memorial.
"The intent was designed to protect the interests of all children," Jones said.
She said students were allowed to make cards for the family, and students wearing blue and orange shirts without Caitlyn's name on them were not asked to change them. Jones said those actions were allowed because students could participate "in private and by choice," while students couldn't help but see the writing on other shirts in class.
Jones said the situation was handled "compassionately." She said, for example, that students who were asked to turn their shirts inside-out were told to keep Caitlyn's name "close to their heart."
"They said that they really liked the shirts, but that it just triggered too much emotion for someone who was really close to her," said 13-year-old student Alyssa Jaynes.
District officials acknowleged Monday their good intentions backfired.
"Certainly the intent of our decision was good," Jones said. "Probably the ramifications of our decision caused more disruption than if we had let kids wear the shirts in the first place."
Officials met with Caitlyn's family Monday afternoon and promised to review the policies that led to the ban. Jones said future tributes would likely still be handled on a case-by-case basis. She said research is clear, for example, that images of suicide victims in schools can do more harm to students than good, and would probably not be allowed.
Crider said one of the best pieces of advice the district received was to reach out to the family of the deceased and ask them what they wanted from the school community.
And Jones, conceding that "hindsight is 20-20," said the district should better communicate expectations with parents ahead of time.
On Facebook, some parents were calling for the ouster of those who made the decision to ban the shirts.
While some students said they were sent to the office and at least one girl said she received a lunchtime detention over the shirt, district officials said no administrative discipline was issued.
But students said the damage had already been done.
"It made feel really bad that I couldn't express myself for Caitlyn," said 11-year-old Jaidyn Bellinger, the student who said she received a lunchtime detention over her shirt. "I wanted to let people know how bad it feels to lose someone like that."