TOPEKA, Kansas – If expanding the guest list to include Michelle Obama at graduation for high school students in the Kansas capital city means fewer seats for friends and family, some students and their parents would prefer the first lady not attend.
A furor over what the Topeka school district considers an honor has erupted after plans were announced for Obama to address a combined graduation ceremony for five area high schools next month an 8,000-seat arena. For some, it was the prospect of a tight limit on the number of seats allotted to each graduate. For others, it was the notion that Obama's speech, tied to the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education outlawing segregation in schools, would overshadow the student's big day.
"I'm a single mother who has raised him for 18 years by myself," said Tina Hernandez, parent of Topeka High School senior Dauby Knight. "I've told him education is the only way out. This is one of the biggest days of their lives. They've taken the glory and shine from the children and put on Mrs. Obama. She doesn't know our kids."
Hernandez was among the parents and students who spoke Thursday at a school board meeting and urged district officials to reconsider their decision to invite Obama. Ron Harbaugh, spokesman for the Topeka school district, said Friday discussions were under way to work out the logistics and planning for the event, including how many tickets each family would be allotted.
"We will have a clearer picture of what's going on," Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh said officials asked the president or first lady to speak at graduation as a tie-in with the anniversary of the Brown decision, which outlawed school segregation. The district plans to place a priority on seating students and their families, and could broadcast the event to an overflow room at a hotel adjacent to the graduation arena for those unable to find a seat inside.
That's not good enough for Taylor Gifford, 18, who started an online petition Thursday evening to urge the district to reconsider its plans. She and the more than 1,200 people who had signed it expressed concern that Obama's visit would limit the seating options for family and friends.
"I really would like it to have a peaceful solution, but there is so much misinformation going on," Gifford said.
Gifford said her initial reaction to the news was excitement, saying she was "freaking out" about the prospect of the first lady speaking at graduation. When rumors of limited tickets surfaced, Gifford felt like the focus was being shifted from the students to Obama.
"People think it's a great opportunity, but it's the graduates' time. They are getting that diploma that they worked so hard for," Gifford said. "Families are feeling that they are being cheated out of the loved ones special day."
Abbey Rubottom, 18, a Topeka High senior, described herself as a "die-hard Democrat" but doesn't like the idea of Obama sharing the stage with graduates.
"No disrespect for the first lady, and it's amazing that she wants to come speak, I just think it doesn't belong at graduation," Rubottom said.
Rubottom suggested separate ceremonies with Obama speaking at one and the address being replayed at the other.
Some people have said bringing in the first lady politicizes the graduation. Others have suggested that if she wants to mark the Brown anniversary, she could just visit the historic site that commemorates the decision, which is just few blocks from the graduation venue.
The Brown site is housed in a former all-black school where the lead plaintiff's daughter and another plaintiff's child in the desegregation case were students. It tells the story of the 1954 Supreme Court decision.
Messages seeking comment from the first lady's office in Washington were not immediately returned Friday.