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Prince George HS to leave seat at graduation for late student following community push back

Published: Jun. 8, 2022 at 6:36 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 9, 2022 at 4:12 PM EDT
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PRINCE GEORGE COUNTY, Va. (WWBT) - Hundreds across Prince George were outraged after a family was shocked and devastated to learn their son, who died of brain cancer, may not be honored at what would have been his senior graduation. On Thursday, Prince George High School officials said there would be an open seat in his honor.

After months of grief, the loved ones of Nicholas Coleman were looking forward to returning to Prince George High School for the ceremony.

They hoped the school could remember him with a small gesture, an empty seat in his honor. The family told NBC12 that the school’s administration refused to honor him in this way.

“They made him do schoolwork when he was going through cancer treatment,” Sydney Jones, Coleman’s girlfriend, said. “That boy deserves a chair; an empty chair at graduation.”

Jones, who dated Nicholas Coleman all throughout his cancer diagnosis and treatment, was livid.

She says his family reached out to the principal asking to arrange a seat, decorated with his picture, along with a cap and gown, on the field at graduation.

“She was like ‘no, we can’t do that,’ making it sound like graduation is only for the living,” Jones said. “No, graduation is not for the living. It can be for the ones who passed away, too,”

In a statement to NBC12, Superintendent Dr. Lisa Pennycuff said: “The Prince George High School leadership team has been working directly with the mother to ensure he is included in the school’s graduation activities.”

His mother spoke with NBC12 off-camera on Wednesday.

She says the principal opted to do a moment of silence and give her a yearbook instead, but that’s all she could offer.

“That’s a rip-off,” Jones said. “If this was any of their children who went through this, they would want the same thing.”

Jones says she has seen other examples of students being honored. In fact, back in 2014, Prince George High School honored a student with an empty seat.

“Two other school systems have done this: Hopewell and Chesterfield. So why can’t Prince George do it?”

It wasn’t just family and friends of Nicholas who were outraged.

“Other seniors are not happy about this. They’re very disappointed in this decision,” Jones said.

On Thursday, a statement to NBC12 said it had been working with Coleman’s mother to plan a tribute, which was the following:

  • A moment of silence reflecting on those students, faculty, staff, and family members who are not able to be with us for graduation day.
  • A special yearbook signing in memory of Nicholas during the high school’s Senior Bash. A page in the Prince George High School 2022 yearbook has been dedicated to Nicholas.

The statement on Thursday said the school principal also met with Senior Class and Student Government Officers to discuss an open chair at graduation. The students recommended that “an empty chair be placed at graduation in honor of Nicholas, adorned with a cap and gown, roses, and the yearbook that will be signed by the students at the Senior Bash.” The high school said the recommendation was approved.

“We appreciate our students’ support of their fellow students and their families. Students are encouraged to express their thoughts through the avenues made available to them through the high school’s administrative team and their elected class and Student Government officers,” the school’s statement said in part.

A petition gaining traction online with signatures from nearly 1,000 students and community members alike.

The graduation ceremony is set for June 18 at 9 a.m.

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