Sudden removal of Wes Leonard tribute signs at school angers supporters

Posted at 5:47 PM, Sep 08, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-08 17:47:09-04

FENNVILLE, Mich. — Disappointment and even anger is growing over the school district's decision in Fennville to remove tribute signs that had been hanging at the high school's football stadium to honor former student athlete Wes Leonard.

Leonard was 16 years old when he collapsed and died on the school's basketball court in 2011 after scoring the game-winning shot to finish off his team's perfect season.

It was later learned the teen suffered from an unknown heart condition which caused him to go into sudden cardiac arrest. His death struck a chord both locally and nationally. His story appeared in Sports Illustrated and onESPN.

His family and supporters have spent the time since his death working to raise awareness about heart conditions in teens and the use of automatic external defibrillators, or AEDs. The tribute signs, which formally stood at the stadium and were provided by the Wes Leonard Heart Team, were meant to serve as a reminder and raise awareness for future students and families at the school.

"It was a phenomenon type of situation" said Becky Crane, a local business owner in Fennville. "I was at the game, my elderly parents were at the game, everybody was at that game."

"It was something that gripped every single person who was there, and it was a ripple effect outward, because the story was so unusual."

But now family and supporters like Crane want to know why the signs were removed without any warning or explanation. "Whatever the reason was, I'm disappointed in the way it was handled. I think there could've been discussion," she said.

"People have missed the point of why we needed them."

Crane said she was told by others the district removed the signs after receiving complaints that Leonard received more attention than other students who've died since.

Maria Flores with the Wes Leonard Heart Team stands next to the sign after it was first removed from the Blackhawks stadium in 2012.

It's the second time the district has removed the signs from the football stadium. In 2012, the banners were abruptly removed only to later be reinstalled.

A banner in honor of Leonard also hangs in the school's gymnasium, and a tribute plaque is mounted on a rock next to the football field.

Fennville Public Schools Superintendent Dirk Weeldreyer did not accept requests to be interviewed on camera, but sent a statement to FOX 17:

"This fall Fennville Public Schools removed the temporary signs at the football stadium that were given to the Wes Leonard Heart Team by a donor four years ago.  They have been proudly displayed at our stadium as a remembrance of Wes and his legacy.

"Fennville Public Schools continues to display multiple permanent memorials dedicated to Wes Leonard and his impact on this school and community.  A bronze plaque is affixed to the Rock of Champions located at the football stadium, a banner honoring Wes hangs in our gymnasium, and Wes’ Hall of Fame plaque hangs proudly in our high school hallway.

"With these permanent remembrances in place, it was decided that the temporary signs could be removed from display at the stadium.  They will be returned to the Heart Team to be used in their awareness and fundraising activities.

"As it has for the past four and a half years, Fennville Public Schools remains a strong supporter of the Wes Leonard Heart Team and its outstanding work in raising awareness about sudden cardiac arrest, in providing AED’s to schools across the state of Michigan, and in saving lives.  Each winter the “Never Forgotten” basketball game here at Fennville raises thousands of dollars toward that cause.  Our school district has been a leader in training and preparedness, being certified as “MiHeartSafe” from the inception of that program, and we support the work of the Heart Team in numerous other ways.  We are strongly committed to continuing our support long into the future.

"It is with great pride that we call Wes Leonard one of our own.  He will truly never be forgotten."

Crane told FOX 17 she felt the move was disrespectful to the Leonard family andthe district could have handled the situation better.

"It not just a sign," she said. "It's a reminder to our young people to be kinder to each other, to love each other. Life is fleeting, and I don't think that hurts anybody to be reminded of that."