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Mom of Student Who Died in Joplin Tornado Wants High School to Save Son a Seat at Graduation

Tammy Niederhelman

Tammy Niederhelman’s son, Zachary Williams, was one of 161 people who lost their lives in the Joplin tornado on May 22, 2011.  He would have been a high school senior now and Niederhelman wants to be able to honor her son the way she wants to during Joplin High School graduation this year.  But the school has its own plans for honoring Williams and others who died in the storm.  Because of that, Niederhelman started a petition on  KSMU’s Michele Skalicky has more.

Zachary Williams was at home with his stepdad when the EF-5 tornado slammed into their home.  The 12-year-old was huddled in the bathtub while his stepdad, Tony Niederhelman, who worked nights and had just woke up from a nap, went to the patio door to look out.  It was then that the tornado hit, sucking his stepdad out of the house and destroying the home.  Tammy Niederhelman, who was at work at Freeman Hospital during the storm, was reunited with her husband who had been admitted to Freeman.  She returned home to find nothing but a concrete slab, and her son was missing.  It was four days later that Williams’ body was finally identified at a temporary morgue.

Williams would have graduated from Joplin high school this May.  And his mom wants the Joplin School District to allow her to drape a graduation cap and gown over a chair at the ceremony in his memory. She’d like to see school policy changed so that other parents can honor their children who have died, in a similar way.

But Joplin High School staff and students want to honor Williams and other district students and staff who died in the tornado in the way they see fit.

Niederhelman isn’t happy with that.  She started a petition called “Save a Seat for Zach” on the site,  As of Thursday morning, the petition had 4,085 signatures.

Niederhelman said former Joplin Schools superintendent, CJ Huff, thought her request might be doable when she brought it up to him awhile back.  She said he told her to talk to the high school principal, Dr. Kerry Sachetta, during what would have been her son’s senior year.  She left a message with the principal and then says she waited nearly a month for someone to get back with her.  When a call came, Niederhelman said it was from the principal’s secretary.

"To tell me that they were going to opt out of that option, that that was something they do not do and that they don't intend to start it," she said.

She said she reached out to current seniors on Facebook and received support for her cause and also shared her story with Joplin media.  According to Niederhelman, Dr. Sachetta contacted her and told her they wouldn’t be able to grant her request, so she took it to the school board, which also told her no.

She said she’ll continue to fight up until the day of graduation.

"Because I think Zachary deserves that honor," she said.

Dr. Sachetta said Niederhelman’s request challenged them to look into whether current practice—holding a moment of silence during graduation for high school students who have passed away--is the best way to honor students.  Williams was a seventh grader in the Joplin School District when he died.  Dr. Sachetta said they talked with high school staff, several students, parents and  other members of the community in order to come to a decision.

"What we tried to do was we tried to make sure the people knew what the requests were, tried to make sure they also knew what had been done in the past, what's typical and what some of the other schools around us have done or do in these certain cases," he said.

While they decided to keep current practice in place, they’ve agreed to change things up somewhat this graduation, which will be held on the five-year anniversary of the tornado.  He said they’ll talk briefly about what that tragic day meant to the city of Joplin and about all the lives lost.

"We're going to talk especially about the lives that were lost from our Joplin school community, and at that point we're going to have a moment of silence, and we're going to make sure the names of all the eight people--seven students and one staff member-- are on our big screen, video screen, and we want people to see it, and we want them to think about it," he said.

Niederhelman is happy the school is acknowledging her son and others from the district who were killed in the storm during graduation.  But she feels the school is “teaching students lack of compassion and selfishness and unwillingness to change.”

Dr. Sachetta said they wanted to honor Williams and other district staff and students who died in the storm at graduation even before Niederhelman’s request was made.  And he feels they’re being very compassionate.

"I think every student that came in here and every teacher that came in here tried to put theirself in, you know, the family's place to whatever they could because nobody can really understand what pain somebody goes through, but, you know, we feel like we are extending the opportunity for him (Williams) to be recognized--without question we are," he said.

Dr. Sachetta said they also plan to honor Williams in the high school yearbook.

But Niederhelman isn’t satisfied with what’s being planned.  She feels the high school should honor her request.

"It's a chair.  It's not like I'm asking for an act of Congress," she said.

She is certain her son would have graduated as scheduled with his class of 2016 if he hadn’t died in the tornado.  He was nearly 13, she said, and a good student who made A’s and B’s.  She said he was a “happy-go-lucky” kid.

"Just loved life, you know, just was ornery and was a good student," she said.

Niederhelman had t-shirts printed with the words “Save One for Zach.”  She said money that’s left over from the t-shirt sales will be given as a scholarship to a current Joplin High School senior in her son’s honor.

Dr. Sachetta said, even if the petition gets 5000 signatures, they plan to stick with their decision, which he said they didn't make lightly.

Niederhelman said, even if they don’t convince school officials to change their minds, she’ll honor her son, Zachary, on graduation day with a seat outside the auditorium.

Michele Skalicky has worked at KSMU since the station occupied the old white house at National and Grand. She enjoys working on both the announcing side and in news and has been the recipient of statewide and national awards for news reporting. She likes to tell stories that make a difference. Michele enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, camping and leisurely kayaking.