Miffed by Memorials’ Move in Billerica
BILLERICA -- The Billlerica Memorial High School’s Class of 1994 experienced what class member Jennifer Rao describes as a “huge eruption of loss.”
That loss derived from three students from the class who were killed in car accidents before they graduated. Carrie Keyes, 17, and 16-year-old Jeff Dunakin were killed in 1993, while 18-year-old Amy Ward, died in 1994.
As a gift to the school, the Class of ’94 dedicated a walkway in memory of Billerica students who died. Aside from Carrie, Jeff and Amy, the site memorialized 16-year-old Ami Jones, who died in a car crash in 1990; Verity Colon, 18, killed in a car accident in 1996; and Christopher Eastman, 15, killed while skiing in 1994.
The memorial walkway held individual plaques with the names of each deceased student placed in front of a sapling planted in their honor. The site has been located behind Billerica Memorial High School for years. During a recent visit to the walkway, the father of one of the deceased students noticed each plaque had been removed.
According to Rao, she contacted Schools Superintendent Timothy Piwowar about the missing plaques. The superintendent said they were removed due to the construction of the new high school. The memorial trees might be next to go.
“We don’t really understand why because we haven’t seen any blueprint that shows any kind of new construction that would be put in their place,” Rao said. “It still looks like the walkway would abut the parking lot.”
Piwowar countered that the location of the walkway is in the spot where the new field complex is set for development. Specifically, the track and high jump area will go where the plaques had rested.
“The project was approved in March 2016, and there were preliminary design plans before that,” Piwowar said.
Rao expressed frustration that none of the family members of the deceased students had been contacted about the removal of the plaques.
“That’s not OK,” she said. “This is not one person’s decision.”
According to Piwowar, the plaques have been “stored and maintained in a respectful manner.” He added there are plans to discuss the possibility of a future home for the plaques, but their presence on school grounds might not be an option.
“There’s a pretty robust body of psychological research that says schools are not the best place for memorials, which is why that’s the policy the district has and why the memorials haven’t been established for other students who have passed since that time,” Piwowar said. “But, it is a possibility that there could be discussion to replicate elsewhere in the community.”
While the school is dedicated to veterans through its name as the Billerica Memorial High School, Piwowar said there is a difference between a memorial for a group like veterans, and a memorial for a specific individual who passed away; which may not be appropriate for a school setting.
A district policy adopted since the plaques were installed specifies that permanent memorials should be limited to awards or scholarships.
“The School Committee recognizes that the death of a student, member of the staff, or prominent community member is deeply felt by the school community,” the policy reads. “As places designed primarily to support learning, school sites should not serve as the main venue for permanent memorials.”
It’s a topic that will be discussed during an April 25 meeting, Rao said. The gathering will include members of the school district and town, along with a couple community members hurt by the removal decision. The meeting is not open to the public.
Rao said they are open to communicating with district members, but consider it a touchy subject for the community.
“I hope we can reach a peaceful resolution,” she said.
Emma R. Murphy contributed reporting.
Follow Aaron Curtis on Twitter @aselahcurtis