The family of a 12-year-old Isanti Middle School student who died by suicide last fall is dismayed he was left out of this spring’s school yearbook.
Kaiden Kauffman’s aunt said the omission of the seventh-grader’s photo “broke everybody’s heart” and that she believes the school is sidestepping the issue of mental illness when it could use his death as a way to discuss the topic.
“Suicide is something nobody wants to talk about,” Sarah Erickson said. “You can’t just erase a kid and expect to prevent future suicides. Nothing changes unless it is talked about. The school failed.”
After Kauffman died on Sept. 22, family members said they asked to plant a tree, install a bench or hang a photo at the school to remember the boy who loved football, fishing and was a “pretty darn good” BMX biker. Their requests were rebuffed, said Dawn Kauffman-Mace, the grandmother who raised Kaiden since he was 18 months old. The missing yearbook photo inflicted more damage.
“We are really angry,” Kauffman-Mace said. “It’s hurtful. We would have hoped there would have been a photo. His friends could have written notes. That would have been a lovely keepsake. Not to even mention his name is unacceptable.”
School officials apologized and said there was no intent to leave him out.
“We feel badly and sympathize with the family and the grief they are going through,” said Shawna Carpentier, a spokeswoman for Cambridge-Isanti Schools. “We wished it didn’t happen.”
Carpentier said the district has reached out to the family and is trying to find a way to remember Kaiden. Kauffman-Mace said the principal suggested including a tribute in next year’s yearbook. That’s too late, she said.
“He died in 2017, not the 2018-19 school year,” she said. “You can’t go back. He deserved to be recognized.”
Yearbooks are often assembled using class lists. Carpentier said the district will review how those lists are put together to avoid a similar occurrence in the future.
Both Kauffman-Mace and Erickson said the absence of Kaiden’s picture eliminated a chance to use his death for something good.
“They took that opportunity away from us,” Kauffman-Mace said. “It’s another door being shut for the opportunity to talk. Kids have mental illness. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Let’s have the conversation. Let’s educate our kids.”
Family members said they will continue to push Cambridge-Isanti Schools to address the topic and change policies.
Carpentier said the district takes the issue of mental health seriously and has programs in place. A new mental health awareness group was formed at Isanti Middle School last year, and counselors are available to provide support, she said.
“We hope students and families reach out to get that support,” she said.