Kansas school district tables gift honoring grad soldier who died by suicide
By MARY CLARKIN | The Hutchinson News, Kan. | Published: October 16, 2019
LANGDON, Kan. (Tribune News Service) — The Fairfield USD 310 Board of Education voted 5-1 Monday night to table the subject of a memorial bench gift from the Class of 1988 that would have a plaque containing the name of 2010 Fairfield High School graduate, Christina "Tina" Schoenecker.
Schoenecker, the daughter of two members of the Class of '88, was a sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve who died by suicide shortly before the end of her military tour in Iraq.
The bench also would include a plaque naming Fairfield High School's Class of '88 member Robert "David" Melton, who was fatally killed as a captain in the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department.
The school board will do research and decide at a later dater after both sides have talked.
Scott Beck offered the motion and Jim Combs provided the second. Voting for the motion were Beck, Combs, Steven Westfahl, Brent Fowler, and Martha Robertson. Voting against the motion to table was Eric Geesling.
Absent from the auditorium for the discussion and vote was School Board President Derek Zongker, a member of the Class of '88 who had brought the idea of the memorial gift bench the Class of '88 had decided on during its 2018 reunion, to the board in September. He said he had a direct conflict of interest because he was a classmate of Schoenecker's parents, Scott Schoenecker and Amy Allbright, and Melton.
That left Westfahl to conduct the meeting. He said he couldn't support acceptance of the memorial bench, not because of how Schoenecker died, but because it wouldn't name all those who protected and served.
A list with over 40 names, dating back to soldiers serving in World War I, was circulated, and Westfahl said it wasn't a complete list.
"It should be a memorial that recognizes all," Westfahl said.
"Our gift has nothing to do with this," Allbright said.
Allbright saw a bench at the Kansas State Fair that she thought was ideal for the memorial bench. Zongker told her in September after the school board meeting where there was a closed-door discussion that there was a concern this could trigger at-risk students at the school.
Allbright said she wasn't told the board hesitated to accept the memorial bench was because it didn't honor everybody.
The manner of death was discussed, Fowler said.
"This was kind of dumped on us," Geesling said, indicating the board was told what "professionals" were trying to relay to the board.
USD 310 has a policy, taken from the Kansas Association of School Boards language, that discourages permanent memorials for deceased students and staff. The school board has the authority to depart from its policy.
On Monday night, the school board heard from about 11 people. They all advocated for Schoenecker's recognition, often saying how she died should not be a factor.
Schoenecker's parents each had prepared statements, and Scott Schoenecker went first. When his voice stopped, Allbright, his former wife, came to the podium and read his typed words. He concluded by reading his daughter's DD214 form from the military, that said she died on active duty in Baghdad, Iraq, and the separation was "honorable." There was no mention of suicide.
Schoenecker left the auditorium before the board decided to table the issue. This bench is by no means a permanent memorial, he said, saying that was in the cemetery.
"Tina has been gone for almost 20 months," Allbright wrote in her statement, "and not one student has taken their life in relation to her death," she wrote. The school board allowed Allbright to stand in front of the school and give away her daughter's scholarship money and speak her name, and no one died, Allbright said.
Allbright said she did not expect the controversy. Since the issue surfaced, McKinney had communicated with her, Allbright said, but no school board members called her.
There are memorials visible at Fairfield. In a glass-enclosed case inside the school across from the entrance to the auditorium are plaques or photos of individuals, including one for Melton.
In 2011, two students, Anthony and Tyler Armstrong, died in a vehicle accident en route to school the Class of 2016 donated a bench in memory of the brothers and it is near the school entrance.
Over the weekend, a plaque screwed into the outer school wall by the Armstrong bench was removed. Superintendent Betsy McKinney and Zongker said there is an investigation into the missing plaque. The school has camera surveillance.
©2019 The Hutchinson News (Hutchinson, Kan.)
Visit The Hutchinson News (Hutchinson, Kan.) at www.hutchnews.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.