Gabrielle Mikaya Keil — those seven syllables, and the few moments it takes to utter them — has created a rift between the Harrisonville School District and a family in mourning.
Gabrielle, or Gabi as she was called, took her own life in late 2016. She was a junior at Harrisonville High with good grades, an interest in astronomy and a love for writing.
If she were alive, she’d walk across the graduation stage this spring to accept a diploma and an award for poetry. Instead, her family has asked school officials to announce her name during the ceremony.
“I think it would be good for the healing process,” said Jennifer Keil, 34, Gabi’s sister. “Calling her name could potentially save another person sitting in the audience who’s thinking ‘nobody cares about me.’ ”
But the family has been repeatedly turned down by the school. Why depends on whom you ask: precedent or the stigma of suicide or the sadness death would evoke on an otherwise celebratory day.
“I just think it’s that whole stigma on suicide. It’s taboo,” said Claire Keil, Gabi’s 21-year-old sister. “They don’t want to talk about it or bring awareness to it.”
Despite a ready smile, Gabi was tormented, according to her family and friends. She suffered from depression and “struggled with her sexuality” after she came out as gay in middle school, Claire Keil said.
Her poetry, which was published in a national collection of students’ work, evinced her pain.
“Maybe my death will be a sweet relief to my mind. / Maybe my death is a blessing,” she wrote in one poem.
The school district said there was no precedent for announcing the names of students taken too soon. Jill Filer, a district spokeswoman, said instead there will be an empty chair draped with a gown in Gabi’s honor, and her name will appear in the program.
Filer wrote that the district believed those are “appropriate ways to remember our students and to maintain the spirit of a graduation celebration.”
She added that Gabi was the only student to die in the class of 2018.
Jennifer Keil and her friend Rachael Uttley met with Harrisonville High Principal Mark Wiegers late last year to ask him personally to say Gabi’s name.
But Wiegers said doing so would infuse the otherwise celebratory event with sadness, according to Uttley’s and Keil’s accounts of the meeting.
Wiegers denied explaining it that way, calling it “totally false.” When asked what he did tell them, he referred The Star to the district’s statement.
Harrisonville has precedent for recognizing lost students in more ways than placing an empty chair among the graduates.
Take Katie Rios, who was killed in 2010 and would have graduated in 2014. During that year’s ceremony, students dropped white roses in a basket on a chair for her, and there was a moment of silence held in her and others’ names.
More than 500 people have signed an online petition calling on the district to change its stance.
Supporters include Gabi’s best friend, Kelsey Keeney, who is now a senior and preparing for graduation herself.
She believes her lost friend “should definitely be recognized because ... she worked hard in school, and she should be recognized for her hard work.”
Gabi’s parents, Lana and Dave Keil, did not wish to be interviewed for this story, but they, too, want the audience to hear Gabi’s name at the ceremony, according to Jennifer Keil.
So does Jeffrey Turner. Turner’s son, Corey, was a freshman when he was hit by a swerving vehicle walking along a street near the high school. Corey was killed a few months before Gabi.
“I realize it’s sad, but they’re a part of the class,” Turner said. “It would mean something to us and it would mean something to them (the Keil family) as far as having their names read.”
Gabi was among the 73 Missouri teens who took their own lives in 2016 — the most on record, The Star found in a recent analysis.
Claire Keil said hearing her sister’s name at graduation would pale in comparison to the sadness of losing her.
“Her life is gone,” she said. “The people who knew her — it would make them happy to hear her name.”
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)