Austin Gray

Austin Gray stands during Carthage High School’s graduation May 25 at Bulldog Stadium. Austin, 18, died weeks later after his car was struck by a driver who ran a red light. His mother, Denise Gray, says Austin’s fellow classmates paid $1,800 for a memorial bench to be placed in his honor on the high school campus, but she doesn’t want it placed at the school’s preferred site for memorial benches. Part of her objection is that the current benches are sinking into the grass. And so far, she hasn’t been able to officially address the school board about the issue because of difficulties getting on the agenda, she said.

CARTHAGE — The mother of a 2018 Carthage High School graduate who died weeks after getting his diploma is seeking to have a memorial bench placed at the school — and disagreeing with district policy on where it should be placed.

Denise Gray says Austin Gray’s fellow classmates paid $1,800 for a memorial bench to be placed in his honor on the high school campus, but she doesn’t want it placed at the school’s preferred site for memorial benches.

Part of her objection is that the current benches are sinking into the grass.

“Those benches, as you can see, are falling over,” Gray said. “They’re coming off of their base. These kids didn’t pay $1,800 for a bench that’s not going to be taken care of.”

Carthage ISD has, so far, denied her request to place the memorial bench at a different site.

Superintendent John Wink reviewed the district’s current, but until now unwritten, policy at Monday’s school board meeting in response to Gray’s request.

“I do want to say that it’s extremely difficult when the district loses one of our students or one of our alumni, and it’s a very difficult time,” Wink said. “It’s only fitting that the district provide an avenue for parents, for classmates to honor loved ones ... that is uniform, consistent and in alignment set forth within the goals of the district.”

Current policy says:

  • Memorials are limited in colors to gray, brown, black and red
  • Memorial sizes will be recommended by campus administration
  • Anyone wishing to place a memorial on campus should make the request in writing
  • Once approved by district administration, memorials will be placed in areas dedicated to that purpose
  • Carthage ISD retains sole discretion for deciding where memorials are placed
  • Carthage ISD is not responsible for maintaining benches or other memorials

“This is the procedure that’s been in place for the last few years, and there are places on campuses where memorials have been placed,” Wink said.

The site where the benches have been placed on the high school campus are near a secondary entrance by the old auditorium. The collection includes three memorial benches for students and alumni who have died, along with other benches bought by various senior classes.

Gray would like to see benches spread out around campus — and on concrete, where they would be supported.

She was seeking Monday to put her son’s bench near the football stadium’s entrance. In addition to memorializing one of Austin’s favorite activities, a bench at the entrance would aid anyone waiting for a ride.

“Why can’t you put them over this big, amazing campus? To what the kids had interest in. For instance, if they played tennis, why can’t you put it by the tennis court. If they played football, why can’t you put it by the football stadium? If they ran track, why can’t you put it by the track? And on concrete, for God’s sake, so they’re not sinking,” Gray said.

Gray brought a room full of supporters to Monday’s meeting but wasn’t officially allowed to speak, because she wasn’t listed on the agenda and the school board has no public comments section. School officials told her she needed to file a grievance to follow proper procedure.

“Now they tell me I can’t address them. That I have to file a grievance,” Gray said. “I called to find out how to file a grievance, yet nobody will tell me how to file a grievance. But yet he won’t tell me in open how to do that.”

Board Vice President Ken Andrus, responding to a question posed from Gray from the audience, told her she would need to follow the grievance process or get on the agenda. Gray told Andrus she had spoken to school officials a month ago and was supposed to be on the agenda. But Monday’s agenda only listed a discussion of the district’s policy.

“I did that, Mr. Andrus,” Gray said. “I did that with plenty of time, and I was supposed to be on this one.”

Wink told Gray he would be glad to meet with her one-on-one to go over the process.

“I’m not going to discuss that tonight, because that’s not the purpose, that’s not the agenda item that we discussed tonight,” he said. “And I’m sorry that there were some misunderstandings, but I’ll be glad to share that information with Ms. Gray.”