Students and parents petition against Michelle Obama speaking at Kansas high school graduation ceremony

They said the presence of the first lady would limit seating and shift the focus away from students in the Topeka school district

Having Michelle Obama speak at your high school graduation is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – but students at a high school in Kansas' capital city said they would prefer it if the first lady was not in attendance on their special day.

There was an outcry at the Topeka High School after plans were announced for Mrs Obama to address a combined graduation ceremony for five area high schools at an 8,000-seat arena next month.

Students and parents expressed concern that Mrs Obama's visit would limit the number of seats available for family and friends and place the emphasis on the first lady rather than the graduates.

Following the announcement, 18-year-old student Taylor Gifford set up an online petition Thursday evening to urge district officials to reconsider their decision. It has been signed by herself and 1,200 other people.

“I really would like it to have a peaceful solution, but there is so much misinformation going on,” Ms Gifford told the Associated Press at a school board meeting that evening.

She said her initial reaction to the news was excitement, saying she was “freaking out” about the prospect of the first lady speaking at graduation. But when rumours of limited tickets surfaced, Ms Gifford felt like the focus was being shifted from the students to Mrs 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 their loved ones’ special day.”

Tina Hernandez, parent of Topeka High School senior Dauby Knight, told the Associated Press: “I'm a single mother who has raised him for 18 years by myself.

“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.”

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 60th anniversary of the US Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education outlawing segregation in schools.

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.

Abbey Rubottom, 18, a Topeka High senior, described herself as a “die-hard Democrat” but said she didn’t like the idea of Mrs 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,” she said.

Ms Rubottom suggested separate ceremonies with Mrs 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 near 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.

Additional reporting by Associated Press

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