Somebody ripped off a bronze plaque and cut down a tree planted at a Spanaway school in memory of a beloved teacher who died last year.
Students who looked up to Max Mitchell, a longtime history teacher at Challenger High School, said it was like losing him all over again.
“When somebody is gone, a memorial reminds you somebody is still there with you,” said Sierra Carson-Holmes, a senior. “That tree is gone. A lot of kids broke down and cried. There’s no way somebody should be able to get away with it.”
School officials believe the thief vandalized the memorial between Sept. 7 and Sept. 11. Security cameras are not angled on the back corner of campus where the memorial is located, and no one has been arrested.
Mitchell taught at Annie Wright School for 18 years before switching to Challenger, where he worked for 15 years. He was well known for offering students advice, bringing food for those in his class and working music into the curriculum.
As a drummer, Mitchell played with myriad bands “from the lowliest honky-tonk to the swankiest of Las Vegas showrooms,” according a memorial page in his honor.
“He was a big part of the school,” said Patti Bunnell, Challenger’s social worker. “Some people said he was the heart of the school. He was very compassionate but very steady, a very strong yet approachable person. Many students relied on him. Many staff looked to him for leadership.”
When he died May 16, 2012, bereaved students wrote letters to him that they later burned. The ashes were buried beneath a Norwegian Spruce tree planted in December in Mitchell’s memory. Dozens of students gathered on their own time to plant the tree and surround it with a circular rock wall.
A bronze plaque with Mitchell’s name was later set into concrete.
On Sept. 11, a teacher noticed the tree lying on the grass. Somebody had cut it and tossed it aside, leaving a 2-to-3-inch stump. The plaque was stolen.
“The reality is, it was senseless and there was no reason for this to happen,” said Krista Carlson, spokeswoman for the Bethel School District. “To have that taken away from the children there, it’s been devastating for them and for the staff.”
Students have placed the cut tree in soil and hope it will take root so they can replant it in the spring. Although the district offered to get a new tree in Mitchell’s memory, the school said they’d rather try to save the original because it has sentimental value.
“We want to take what’s left and make something fresh out of it,” Bunnell said. “It was one of Max Mitchell’s philosophies to work with what you have and make something better of it.”
Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653