Clysta Crying Wolf Cole spread out copies of her late son’s high school transcript on the family’s well-worn dining room table at her home in South Seattle.
The names of several schools crowd the top of her son Evitan Debiaso’s academic record. Roosevelt and Interagency in Seattle, and alternative schools in Des Moines and SeaTac. Columns in black and white — showing many F’s, but also a smattering of C’s, B’s and A’s — belie only a small part of this teenager’s struggles to stay on track to graduate.
But Debiaso was close, though he may not have known at the time. After his death, Cole noticed that his transcript didn’t mention one of the schools he attended, and the credits he earned there. She looked into it, and learned that he was fewer than three credits shy of earning a diploma when he was shot three times and died in December 2018.
This prompted Cole to ask school officials to issue a posthumous diploma honoring his achievements, but when she requested one from Highline Public Schools, where Debiaso last attended school, she was denied.
“It is hard and extremely emotional when we move through the graduation season watching our friends’ children graduate and our schools won’t even give us a piece of paper to honor our children,” Cole said. “I want to make sure I’m the last parent that is ever told ‘no.’ ”
To fulfill that quest, Cole is taking her concerns to Olympia: She hopes families of all children who die during their senior year can receive the same dignity she’s seeking for her son. State law doesn’t require school districts to grant a diploma when a high school student dies, and according to education officials, state law is ambiguous about whether districts are allowed to issue one. But for about a year, Cole said, her calls and emails to lawyers, state education officials and advocacy organizations have helped grease the wheels of change.
Now, lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow families of public school students to request a diploma if their child dies after having finished 11th grade and completing state requirements that put them on course to graduate.
The bill is modeled after a similar bill in Texas, which was passed in 2007 following the death of a teenage girl a few months before graduation. If the Washington bill ultimately passes, its sponsor Sen. Claire Wilson said, it will be named “Evitan’s Law.”
About 30 Washington high school seniors die every year, state education officials said. On average, another 10 students who are in their fifth, sixth or seventh year of high school also pass away each year.
Debiaso, who was Aleut and Sioux, was 19 and in his fifth year of high school when he died. Aside from his parents, he left behind six younger siblings and a complicated picture of a teenager working through serious mental health concerns, disabilities and time spent in and out of school.
Cole remembers Debiaso’s life as a series of dualities. He loved high-octane action movies, particularly “The Fast and the Furious” series, but also softer stuff, such as “America’s Next Top Model.” He was silly: He was known to playfully lick his mom’s cheek to distract her from cooking dinner, and in a picture dated Aug. 13, 2013, a 14-year-old Debiaso looked serene as his mom gave him a piggyback ride.
But he didn’t always tell the truth, and he was impulsive: In another set of pictures taken later that 2013 day, Debiaso appeared with a neck injury and eyes swollen shut, injuries sustained when he agreed to be jumped, or initiated, into a neighborhood gang. When Debiaso died in 2018, he was helping a group of friends rob a 13-year-old in Tacoma. A juvenile fired the shots that killed Debiaso, court records show.
“I know how important it was for him to graduate and I know how much of a struggle it was for him,” Cole said. “I don’t want the world to see him as another dead body in the street.”
Cole, who is Aleut and lives near Rainier Beach High School, said Debiaso had always wanted to be the first one in the family to earn a formal high school diploma. Lawmakers supporting the bill said it would honor children of all backgrounds, and that an individual’s history should have no bearing on a family’s eligibility.
“Should the manner of their death, or situation or life experiences, good, bad or indifferent, should that impact whether a family receives a diploma?” said Wilson, D-Auburn. “My answer is no.”
Parker Teed, a basic education manager at the Washington State Board of Education, helped Cole navigate the complexities of proposing new legislation. They’ve talked roughly once a month for the last six to nine months, he said.
“I was trying to keep her motivated and looking at the positive side during a process of mourning,” he said. “Even families who are going through challenges deserve to celebrate their student’s education.”
The bill is gaining momentum. The State Board of Education supports it, as does the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. It is expected to be considered in the Senate’s Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee; Cole testified in Olympia in front of that committee on Monday.
By the head of her bed, Cole keeps her son’s red backpack and a pair of his boots. A red T-shirt printed with “#EvitanClassof2019” and an image of a medicine wheel, a sacred Native American symbol, drapes from a clothes hanger in the living room.
Bringing home her son’s diploma, she said, would bring some sense of justice.