WELEETKA — Wanda Mankin recently was flipping through a stack of tests taken in the spring by students of Graham Schools. The elementary principal had wanted to get their attention on the first day of class about the importance of earning good grades. Instead, the stack itself got her attention. "I forgot to take Taylor's out,” she said. "The students didn't see her test, but I just stopped. A student said ‘Is something wrong?' I said, ‘No, no, nothing is wrong' and I went on.” Friday, the second day of school, marked two months since two students — Taylor Dawn Paschal-Placker, 13, and Skyla Jade Whitaker, 11 — were shot to death on a rural county line road near Placker's home. So far no arrests have been made.
Starting the new yearThis is Mankin's 31st year as an educator at Graham. Have you ever given so many hugs on the first day of school here? "Probably not,” she replied. Have you ever shed as many tears on the first day? "I kept myself together because we did have a couple of students that were emotional, and if they see us on the edge it's just harder for them,” she said. Graham Schools, an independent school district 6.5 miles east of Weleetka, has 90 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade, primarily from rural areas around Weleetka, Dustin and Henryetta. Although Taylor was in sixth grade and Skyla was in fifth grade, the best friends both attended school in the same classroom.
Keeping chaos in checkThe first day of the new school year "went really smooth,” Superintendent Dusty Chancey said. The day included additional safety measures — all classroom doors were locked and no students went from the cafeteria to play in the gym at lunch until an assigned teacher went with the group. "The OSBI said people that commit these crimes like to see what kind of chaos they created,” Chancey said. "If we have all of the students in one location, it's easier to recognize anyone on campus that shouldn't be.” When the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agents visited before the start of school they dropped off posters. One of those is on the wall in the main office, just above boxes of new textbooks. Down the side is "REWARD” and along the top in red is "$30,000.” Below that are pictures of Taylor and Skyla. This is just one of the reminders. Another is a green plaque given by the girls' families to the school reading, "In Loving Memory of Taylor & Skyla.” And throughout the school, students and teachers wear purple and green wristbands handed out on enrollment day, Aug. 1, that read "In Memory of Taylor and Skyla BFF,” which stands for "Best Friends Forever.” "We had a couple of students who couldn't take them for whatever reason,” Mankin said. "I said I would keep them in case they wanted them later.” Before that first day, Virginia Tedlock, a psychologist and graduate of Graham High School, came in to talk to teachers. She talked not only about the present, but also about the future. "She talked about when someone is arrested,” Chancey said. "That will effect them. So we needed a plan.” As for the present, teachers referred a couple of students to Tedlock for counseling about dealing with the deaths of their classmates.
School and communityOne important thing hasn't changed, Chancey said. This is his 17th year as superintendent of Graham Schools. It also marks the first time he hasn't had to hire a new teacher. "That did help,” he said. "We have the same people and they are very cohesive.” As Chancey sat in his office Friday, his right elbow was next to a large plastic jar featuring pictures of the girls. Below the pictures, Taylor and Skyla were described as "two very smart and beautiful girls and most of all best friends to the end.” It asked for donations that would be divided between the families. Mankin told Chancey that someone from the nearby community of Dustin had dropped off the jar containing bills and coins. This is an example of Graham's greatest asset, the superintendent said. It's not the money, but the concern and the willingness to help in any way possible. "One of the biggest assets we have is our staff and community,” he said. "You've seen how everybody jumps up and pulls together. "We've got our routine going, but we don't know what's going to happen next. So that is the biggest asset we have.” That compassion is very important to everyone, including Mankin. But with two months having passed, many answers still can't be found. "We still have people calling and wanting to know what they can do for us,” she said. "We don't know. They can't do what we want.”
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