GAYVILLE — When they were crowned Monday night, the Gayville-Volin High School homecoming royalty weren’t on stage. In fact, they didn’t even know they were up for the honor.
Instead, the king and queen were called up from the audience, much to the surprise not only to them but to the entire audience.
That’s because the GVHS seniors chose two very special classmates rather than focus the spotlight on any of themselves, according to Principal Tom Rice.
"This year, the senior class had an outstanding opportunity," he said. "Rather than the typical homecoming royalty vote, the seniors decided to honor two classmates who have disabilities."
Kassie Jensen was chosen as the homecoming queen by her classmates, and Nick Hoffman was selected as king.
Jensen, the daughter of Timmy and Tina Jensen, has Down Syndrome. Hoffman, the son of James and Rhonda Hoffman, has autism.
In addition, the senior class chose kindergartner Ethan Crossman, who is undergoing extensive cancer treatments, as an honorary homecoming prince.
Crossman is the son of Greg and Lacy Crossman.
"Ethan is battling brain cancer and has gone through more than 60 rounds of radiation and other forms of chemotherapy in his short life," Rice said. "He and his family have shown tremendous faith and courage throughout this fight."
Jensen and Hoffman have been members of the class for years, according to senior Jayden Engen. The class had long held the goal of choosing Jensen and Hoffman as homecoming royalty during their final year in high school.
"When we were freshmen, we were already talking about how cool it would be for Kassie and Nick to be homecoming king and queen," Engen said. "We’ve been planning this for a long time."
This fall, the senior Class reaffirmed their decision to honor their special classmates, said senior Sarah Buckman.
"We knew that we wanted to do this, so we made the decision to go this way," she said.
However, the plan hit a snag when it was presented to the Gayville-Volin administration.
Superintendent Jason Selchert noted school policy called for holding a student election on homecoming royalty.
"We decided to play things out and see how it went," said senior Elianna Clark.
The homecoming election was held as required under school policy. When the results were announced, the finalists knew they were giving up their own opportunity should the senior class crown the two special students.
Those students stepping aside included Engen, Clark, Buckman, Taven McKee, Colby Rickford and Cade Rickford.
The senior class was unanimous in proceeding with the decision, Clark said.
"We had a discussion, and we realized it would mean more to them than it would to us," she said. "They’ll remember this and talk about it for a long time."
The class informed school officials they were setting aside the election results and instead honoring Jensen and Hoffman.
The seniors didn’t tell anyone else about their plans, even Jensen. Because of Hoffman’s autism, school officials believed it was better to tell him ahead of time.
"Nick has difficulty handling a lot of change and excitement, so we wanted to avoid any problem that might arise (because of a surprise announcement)," Selchert said.
A special education teacher spoke with Hoffman and his mother about the plan, and both were agreeable with it, Clark said.
At the same time, the senior class decided to honor Crossman. He received recognition at previous volleyball and football games, but the class wanted to make him a special part of the homecoming festivities.
Rather than set up chairs for the royal court, the senior class sat together for the Senior Spotlight, Rice said. The class’s decision reflected the district’s emphasis on honoring all students, he said.
The Senior Spotlight is done in conjunction with coronation. At that time, all seniors are presented to the audience with a short biography and get the "spotlight."
"For 11 years, we have been trying to make homecoming more inclusive while still honoring tradition. With the school board’s blessing, (guidance counselor) Natalie Selchert and I started a Senior Spotlight about nine years ago," Rice said.
"The GV Staff believes all students are unique and possess many gifts that we don’t see on a day-to-day basis."
McKee said he was stunned at the audience response with the crowning of Jensen, Hoffman and Crossman.
"We were getting a lot of applause from the audience, and there was a lot of people crying," he said.
Clark was among those caught up in the moment. "Nick’s mom was crying. Kassie was crying, too. And I was almost crying," she said.
Colbey Rickford said the moment reflected a true bond. "It was very emotional for everyone. The class really came together," he said.
"It feels like it was meant to be," Engen added.
"It was great to see it," Buckman said, adding her father — school board chairman Kent Buckman — was supportive of the decision.
The two special students offered words of wisdom in their Senior Spotlight biographies.
"It’s not whether you get knocked down. It’s whether you get back up," Hoffman said.
Jensen offered her own special advice. "Be nice to your teachers. Also, be kind to people and don’t leave anybody out, everyone needs a friend," she said.
Crossman received his own special recognition, including a large stuffed lion and a binder filled with quotes and signatures from the senior class.
"Ethan is just an amazing kid. He takes everything to heart," Cade Rickford said. "He also puts everything in perspective for us. We get the opportunity to play football, and he has battled a lot of things for a little boy."
"Ethan reminds us that we take so much for granted," Colbey Rickford added.
Selchert commended the senior class for its decision.
"It takes a special group to come up with this idea and to give up a chance to become homecoming king or queen," he said. "I don’t think (these students) realize it now, but it’ll hit them in 10 years or so."
Rice noted the Gayville-Volin students showed character, as their decision went against the popular traditions.
"The elephant in the room has been the fact that nobody calls homecoming royalty what it is, a popularity contest," he said. "These students chose selflessness above self. The staff and administration at Gayville-Volin couldn’t be more proud them."
Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter.