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News / Northwest

2 student deaths upend Tri-City families. How schools will honor them at graduation

By Eric Rosane, Tri-City Herald
Published: April 7, 2024, 6:00am

RICHLAND — After a year of skipping out on classes, Maria Moreno-Reyes was finally ready to get things straight. She wanted to graduate high school.

In the final months of her junior year, the 17 year old crammed online classes to make up for lost credits. She quit her two part-time jobs at McDonald’s and Journeys, to focus on her studies.

Maria was looking forward to being a senior at Richland High School, and was even more excited to see what life had in store for her and her long-term boyfriend after graduation.

She was all in.

As she pulled out of the WinCo Foods in Richland one summer day, Maria spotted a homeless woman with her child panhandling near Columbia Point Drive. Without hesitation, she handed them the last $20 she had earned from her jobs.

“I thought, man, I raised a good girl here,” said her father, Gabriel Moreno, 44, of Kennewick. “Ever since she was little, you could see a halo on her. She was just a bright star everywhere she went.”

Maria went back to school — but she didn’t finish.

Her Nov. 21 death instead rocked the Tri-Cities, sending her family and classmates into mourning just two days before Thanksgiving.

She was riding home as a passenger in her cousin’s car when they spun out, left the roadway and rolled near the Highway 240 bypass on-ramp to Interstate 182.

Now, as the date of her would-be graduation approaches, her family is speaking out about the importance of remembering seniors who aren’t here to don a cap and gown.

“If she was here, she would have done it. She would have graduated,” said her mom, Angelica Reyes, 38.

The family says their daughter was on track to graduate and should be awarded a posthumous diploma to “finish her Bomber years.” The parents hope at the very least that the high school shows some sort of acknowledgment at the June 7 commencement.

And it’s likely that they will. The Richland School Board voted unanimously last week to create policy allowing the names of students who have died to be read aloud before commencement and included in the graduation program.

Richland students who have satisfied all requirements for a high school diploma before their death will have their names announced alongside other graduates, and families will be offered a private presentation of the diploma.

Washington state law also allows, under rare circumstances, school districts to award honorary high school diplomas to students who held an “on-track to graduate” status prior to their death.

High schools have always struggled with how to best acknowledge deceased students at graduation. Lingering too long on the subject could risk the emotional safety of attendees, staff fear, but no acknowledgment at all risks a callous perception to families.

Most school districts in Washington state do not have set policy on the books because of the nuanced nature of death and grief. Some districts have long-held, unwritten policies either acknowledging or not the lives of dead students.

The Richland school board says it tried to find a healthy balance to acknowledge loss while protecting attendees.

For most families, graduation day will signify new beginnings. But for others, including Moreno-Reyes’ family, the day will hopefully bring closure.

‘Always chose good’

Maria’s memory still lingers on in the family’s Kennewick home.

One wall in the entryway is adorned with photos, candles, trinkets and memorabilia of her life. Her siblings put on T-shirts with a design commemorating their eldest sibling. And outside, artificial roses lie neatly on the dashboard of a used 2012 Mercedes E350.

“That was her 18th birthday present we didn’t get to give her,” Reyes said.

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Maria Moreno-Reyes was raised in the Tri-Cities, a relatively reserved child who enjoyed riding bikes with her dad. She wasn’t into sports, but picked up softball to spend time with her friends. She brought the best out of everyone, her parents said.

She was tirelessly dedicated to her family and knew she served as a role model for her four younger siblings. That drove her to turn her academic career around.

“She was always very big on taking care of the kids. When she got paychecks, she was always buying the kids clothes, shoes. We never really made it her responsibility, it was something she wanted to do,” Reyes said. “She wanted to work, she wanted to take care of the kids… She wanted independence.”

Maria “always chose good,” too, and never seemed to be stressed about the challenges of life, Reyes said. Friends she made in high school also helped her get in touch with the Hispanic culture and music that her parents never introduced her to.

Her plans after high school were to attend Columbia Basin College and the University of Washington, with hopes of becoming a special education teacher. She also had dreams of being a mother.

‘We said our goodbyes there’

Reyes said the morning of Maria’s death was “out of the ordinary” for the family.

The high schooler normally drove herself to school, but one of the family cars was in the shop getting fixed. Maria had an important test that day, so Reyes offered to drive her. After grabbing donuts, Reyes dropped her “Conchita” off at Richland High School with plans to pick her up that afternoon.

Maria’s cousin, 18-year-old Celcilo Romero, was in town that day with his new car. Reyes asked if he could pick her up and take her home since she was running errands.

But at 2:39 p.m., Reyes, Moreno and Maria’s boyfriend received a notification on their phones saying she was likely in an accident.

“My first reaction was to run,” Reyes said.

She met Moreno at Kadlec Regional Medical Center after getting a tip from a family member that Romero had been transported there. Hospital staff told them they had Romero, but not Maria.

One of Romero’s friends confirmed to Reyes his fears.

The parents drove to the McDonald’s near Fred Meyers, hopped the fence near BMW of Tri-Cities, ran across Interstate 182 and came upon the accident about 30 minutes after it had happened.

The scene remains burned in their memories: Romero’s flipped 2005 Infinite G35, Maria’s scattered backpack and homework thrown about, and the scent from her perfume bottle lying on the roadway.

First responders reportedly told Reyes they couldn’t remove Maria’s body because the car was unstable and had to be flipped, plus they were waiting for the coroner.

“They were nice enough to let me be with her. I was holding her hand,” Reyes said.

Later, the family was only able to recover the contents of Maria’s pocket: A dime, a sticker and a stick of lip gloss. Even today, the family hasn’t been able to get her other items because the incident was considered a crime scene.

“We said our goodbyes there,” Moreno said, fighting back tears. “That was the hardest day of my life. I still can’t recuperate, even now.”

Romero is facing vehicular homicide charges in the death of his cousin.

Court documents allege Romero was speeding 75 to 80 mph as he entered the on ramp and was weaving between the left and right lane. He was reportedly trying to get into a gap in the right lane to pass another car while on a curve in the road when he lost control. Another passenger in the backseat survived.

Romero’s trial is tentatively set for May 28.

‘It’s still unbearable’

December brought about more tears for the family.

Twenty days after Maria’s death, her boyfriend, 16-year-old Nathaniel Garcia, died by suicide.

Garcia was a student at Chiawana High School, whose “enthusiasm for life, bright smile, laughter and photography skills endeared him to friends and family alike,” his family writes in his obituary.

“We tell the kids it was a broken heart,” Moreno said.

“(Maria and Nathaniel) already knew what they wanted to name their kid and what kind of life they wanted to live,” Reyes said.

Reyes pointed out a hand-sewn police teddy bear on the wall that Garcia’s mother made for her. The badge was made out of a costume Maria wore during Halloween, in remembrance of their child.

Her 18th birthday on Dec. 16 also unearthed a flurry of emotions.

The family had reserved a DJ and space for a party at a music venue at Uptown Shopping Center. Instead, they drove up to Pioneer Memorial Services in Moses Lake to spend time at her grave. She’s buried next to her grandmother and grandfather.

“That’s probably what we’ll do for every birthday at this point, is spend it out there with her,” Reyes said.

There’s very little comfort for their family these days. But what has helped them grieve has been “trying to live life the way she would have lived it,” Reyes said.

“That’s what’s kept us going. It’s her,” she said.

“It still hurts,” Moreno said. “It’s still unbearable.”