From the podium at the Craig High School commencement Thursday at Monterey Stadium, Janesville police dog Fred gave a simple address to students.
“Woof!” Fred said.
Fred repeated himself several times. The trained drug-sniffing and crime-busting dog’s barks echoed out of the loudspeaker and across the stadium.
Janesville police officer Drew Severson, who handles Fred, chuckled. He told the crowd gathered to see some 430 Craig students graduate that Fred would rather be working on crimes than giving keynote graduation addresses.
Severson was delivering a “thank you” to the Class of 2018 on Thursday night. The class had chosen Fred as the recipient of the senior class gift: a $1,000 bulletproof, tactical police dog vest.
The goal: to keep Fred safer as he tracks drug activity and criminals.
Fred’s bark said it all. Even though it wasn’t Fred’s graduation night, the dog was excited. Severson’s address to the students was more jokingly frank.
“There are two paths,” Severson said. “You can choose the path where you’re leading the dog or the path where you’re being chased by the dog.”
If Craig co-valedictorian Mac Ryan’s words were true, many Craig students will walk away from Monterey Stadium as leaders.
Ryan called his classmates, all of them, a “family” and said they share the same homegrown values of generations of Craig graduates who “wore similar gowns”—including a grandparent of his who graduated in the Class of 1943 and promptly received a draft card for military action.
At age 18, just weeks after commencement, Ryan said, his grandparent was fighting in World War II with a company that included a few high school classmates.
“They faced a war in another place and took their values from Janesville with them,” he said.
Ryan wasn’t so interested in talking about what his classmates might become. He said he likes what he sees right now.
Ryan explained that his each of his classmates is in some way a renaissance man or woman, telling his fellow students: “We paint, we sing, we strum, we dance …”
His angle: “Values” are really just an aggregate of the individual qualities of his classmates, which together build a more complicated definition of who his class is. In short, he said, none of the graduates need to wait for the future to learn who they are. They’ve already arrived.
“We are confident; we mix it up. We feel the freedom on our faces,” Ryan said. “It’s not the time to look at what we’ll become, but who we already are.”
Another commencement speaker, Ayana Smith-Kooiman, told her classmates they’ve got to learn to conquer the great deterrent of success: fear.
One of the most common fears, she told graduates, is the fear of making mistakes. She said the best thing about any good gaffe is the learning that comes with it.
Smith-Kooiman gave a blistering example of one of her own blunders in judgment.
During the school’s homecoming dance her freshman year, Smith-Kooiman wore a dress with a train that was too long. She learned too late that she’d made a mistake. She took off her high heels and promptly slipped, barefoot, on her train.
She fell flat on her back.
From then on, Smith-Kooiman said she’d learned a lesson: For the next three years, whenever she wore a dress, it would be a knee-length one. And no high heels. Wedges.
Chit-chat might not tell the whole story, but it does carry on the breeze. Before the commencement started, an eavesdropping Gazette reporter took the temperature of the 430 Craig students who had lined up in the lawn outside the stadium, awaiting their gowned walk.
One female student seemed concerned about the sunshine.
“I left my sunglasses in my car,” she said. “You know what? I’m not going back. Oh, well. I’ll probably miss the step when I go on the stage.”
One male student offered words of inspired encouragement—not to another student, but instead to the contents of a can of silly string he was holding.
“You’re going to fly so far,” he said.
Another student was talking about sweat—or something.
“It’s all about the scent of graduation,” he said.
Then there were words from one student to another of urgency, of the here and now, of forevermore.
“I think the line’s moving. Get going, noodle head.”
What does “home” mean to you?
It’s probably the place your family lives, where you absorb your values and where you feel secure.
Craig High School senior Ayana Smith-Kooiman lived in many places before she found her permanent home.
She has lived with her birth mother and her siblings, with a foster family and her older sibling, with a foster family and her younger sisters, and with a foster family without any of her siblings.
In fall, Ayana will attend Macalester College, a private liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she hopes to pursue a double major in political science and international studies with a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism.
She’ll be doing that thanks to a QuestBridge scholarship, which will pay for her room and board and tuition. About 15,000 students apply for the scholarships, but only about 1,000 win them.
In newspaper stories, the phrase “in and out of foster homes” often forecasts some sort of disaster in someone’s life.
In Ayana’s life, there is no disaster. There is only Ayana, a thoughtful, intelligent and balanced woman who can acknowledge—even joke about—what she perceives as her flaws. Yes, she works too hard. Yes, she pursues personal success when she probably should take more time to chill.
Her family life—or lack thereof—has been the biggest influence in her life.
Researchers say one of the most traumatic events that can happen to a child is removal from her home and parents—even if the home is a terrible place.
A Rock County human services official once described it this way: “It might be a bad home, but it’s their home, and they love their parents.”
When Ayana was 5, she was sent to her first out-of-home placement with her older sister. A series of other family configurations followed, with the girls sometimes living with relatives and sometimes with strangers.
The foster system “sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t,” Ayana said.
“I mean, I was fine,” she said. “But that’s because I kind of conformed to the mold of being the ‘good kid.’ But the moment you don’t conform to that mold in the system, it can be very, very awful for you.”
Despite her role as a “good child,” she remembers having breakdowns.
Being removed from her family was “very traumatizing,” she said.
“I remember when I was living with the one family in Beloit, I would just start screaming, ‘I want to go home, I want to home, I want to go home,’” Ayana said. “One time, I got so mad I took a shirt and ripped it right in half. I think I was 9 at the time.”
For the longest time, she couldn’t figure out why she and her siblings had been taken away from their homes.
“We didn’t know. Nobody told us. And that’s a very helpless feeling,” Ayana said.
The experience was hard on her younger sisters, and her older sister spent time in a group home, she said.
“My older sister had PTSD—actually, we all have problems with PTSD and depression,” Ayana said, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder.
“My older sister is really lucky that she got adopted when she did. That’s a big fear with foster kids. The older you get, the less likely you are to be adopted. And then you age out of the system, and then there’s no safety net.”
In 2010, Ayana and her two younger siblings were adopted by their aunt and uncle, Krystle and Josh Kooiman. Ayana calls them Mom and Dad.
“We’re a very spiritual family, and my mom prayed and prayed that we would be placed in a home that was safe and where they could still see us,” Ayana said. “My mom’s running joke is, ‘I guess God thought that was us.’”
Sometimes Ayana struggles with the past. But when something triggers the grief, trauma or betrayals of her childhood, she responds by working harder, by trying to overcome something difficult or by trying something new. She took a physics class just because she knew it would be difficult.
That work absorbs her mind and spirit and helps her feel better.
“I’m always trying to better myself, to put my best foot forward,” Ayana said. “There’s a running joke in our family that we all have the smart gene, but we’re also very lazy. So I’m trying to be the best me I can be.”
Multiple anti-bullying groups in Janesville want the Janesville City Council to enact an ordinance that would fine parents and punish kids with community service as a way to prevent bullying.
The anti-bullying effort comes roughly two weeks after Ellizabeth Jacobson, a 12-year-old Janesville girl, committed suicide. Her mother, Rebecka Coughlin, said bullying played a role in her daughter’s death.
A few people advocating for the anti-bullying ordinance plan to attend Monday’s city council meeting and speak during public comment. There is currently no discussion item on the agenda.
Angie Babcock, the leader of local anti-bullying group Be a Rooney, sent an email last week to council members and shared the exchange with The Gazette. The school district has its own bullying policy, but it only applies to incidents that happen on school grounds, she wrote.
Bullying follows kids home through social media or to after-school jobs. A citywide policy would help resolve situations outside school, she wrote.
Babcock also cited other Wisconsin cities such as Monona and Shawano with similar ordinances in place.
In council President Doug Marklein’s response, he questioned whether a “feel-good ordinance” would do anything to stop bullying. The problem isn’t isolated to Janesville, but the school district, media and advocacy groups could help raise awareness, he wrote.
“As you stated, some communities have adopted ordinances, the problem has not gone away because of these ordinances in those towns. It is my thinking that an anti bullying ordinance would not be effective in any community,” Marklein wrote in his email. “There is no set of rules or regulations that can control this behavior. … I do not see where a feel good ordinance or resolution will have the effect you hope it would.”
Babcock took umbrage with Marklein’s position and said she thought it made children seem like “used tissues” someone could throw away. The policy would not be called a “feel-good ordinance” if it was actually enforced, she said.
Marklein said his reply was taken out of context. He was sympathetic and provided examples of how bullying affected his own family, he said.
Babcock suggested a persistent bully could be ordered to do community service, such as helping clean the school or serving a weekend detention. And their parents would have to pay a fine.
“It would make it so that there’s consequences outside school for their actions. Nobody wants to have something on their record; nobody wants to pay a fine; nobody wants to do community service,” Babcock said. “Of course, you’ll have a few who aren’t scared by that at all, but the number is going to be a lot less.”
Babcock’s original email to the council didn’t include specific policy recommendations. Marklein told The Gazette that Babcock didn’t reply to his response, so he was unable to get more details about a possible ordinance.
A system of fines and community service might work, he said.
Council member Jens Jorgensen said he has talked to the Shawano police chief about how that city uses its ordinance, and he’s open to the city doing more research on a Janesville ordinance.
Babcock said Jorgensen has been a supporter of her group, and she appreciated his response when they recently spoke about the anti-bullying issue.
She and Ashley Jacobson, Ellizabeth’s aunt, want a policy that would hold parents and kids accountable. That’s a stronger demand than an online petition started by another parent, which does not mention specific penalties for kids.
Jacobson recently started Lizzy’s Army, an anti-bullying group that honors her niece.
Both women said they plan on attending a private roundtable meeting with city and school officials scheduled for next week. Babcock would also try to attend the council meeting if her schedule allows, she said.
Jacobson said she would definitely be at the council meeting and would criticize Marklein’s “completely insensitive” email response. She was offended by one sentence he wrote that said her niece’s suicide “was not the first nor will it be the last.”
Playing mediator, Jorgensen said he hoped the council and city staff could find a solution everyone could support.
“I hope we can have discussion on it as a community, one that’s open and honest. Emotions are high, and understandably so,” he said. “I hope we can come together and figure something out that works for everybody.”
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