TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Michelle Obama is rearranging plans for a speech before graduating high school seniors in Kansas in the face of protests that her appearance at a combined graduation ceremony for five schools would limit seating for families and friends.
She had accepted the Topeka public school district’s invitation to speak May 17 at the combined ceremony to mark that day’s 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, outlawing school segregation. The case originated in Topeka.
But a furor over what the district considered an honor erupted after plans for Mrs. Obama’s address were announced.
Under a new plan worked out by the district, the first lady will speak on May 16 at a “senior recognition day” ceremony at the same 8,000-seat arena where the combined ceremony was to be held. The combined ceremony is being scrapped, and the five schools will hold separate graduation exercises instead.
The compromise, announced while President Barack Obama was traveling in Asia, pleased Topeka students and parents who were concerned about being limited to six tickets for family members and the first lady’s remarks taking away from the occasion.
“That’s awesome. I’m ecstatic,” said Tina Hernandez, mother of Topeka High senior Dauby Knight. “It works out for everybody. That makes me more excited for her to come.”
The school district said each student will get one ticket and up to six for family members for the first lady’s speech, the same allotment originally planned for the combined graduation ceremony. And now that Mrs. Obama will no longer speak at a graduation, seating won’t need to be limited due to concerns over her security during graduation events.
School board president Janel Johnson said the district was pleased with the community support and hopes Mrs. Obama’s visit makes for a memorable weekend. The first lady’s communications director, Maria Cristina Gonzalez Noguera, added that Mrs. Obama wants everyone to have the opportunity to attend a graduation ceremony.
“Once we learned about the concerns of some students, we were eager to find a solution that enabled all of the students and their families to celebrate the special day,” the spokeswoman said Thursday.
Eighteen-year-old Taylor Gifford had launched an online petition urging the school district to reconsider its plans. Gifford and the more than 1,200 people who had signed it expressed concern that Mrs. Obama’s visit would limit guest seating.
Abbey Rubottom, 18, said the change of plans would work best for graduates and their families, as well as other community members who are interested in what Mrs. Obama would have the say about the anniversary of the Brown decision.
“We are affected, but to close it off from people who deserve to go there doesn’t make sense,” Rubottom said. “The fact that she would do that is so amazing.”
Hernandez said she was glad the first lady realized the stir her planned visit was causing for the graduates and their families, and that she was willing to modify her plans.
“She’s a mom. She understands,” Hernandez said.
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