Across the US, high school graduations are serving dual roles as rites of passage for teenagers entering adulthood and memorials for those who were killed – often with guns – before they could don their caps and gowns. Amid rows of optimistic graduates are empty seats adorned with regalia or grieving parents who are there to walk the stage and accept diplomas on their children’s behalf.
Some of the youths were killed before they reached their senior year, others in the days, weeks or months leading to their graduation. The unoccupied seats in auditoriums and photos of smiling young faces shown on large screens serve as a stark reminder of the growing risk of gun injury and death that teenagers face and the far-reaching impact that these losses have on their families and peers.
“We’re losing our kids too early, they’re not even able to finish high school, and that has an impact on the student body as a whole,” said Chalinda Hatcher, whose daughter Shamara Young was shot and killed in Oakland, California, in 2021.
Hatcher already planned to order a cap and gown to place next to her daughter’s urn, but when she went to buy them, school administrators at Fremont high school in east Oakland told her not to, because they already had something planned for her.
“I really was appreciative because they remembered,” Hatcher said, but “it brought everything back to the forefront … the fact that she’s not here, that she was taken away so violently and not able to graduate, it’s in your face.”
Hatcher sat among her daughter’s classmates during the ceremony. When she stood to walk across the stage, she was so overcome with emotion that her 13-year-old son ran down from the audience to walk alongside her. “I didn’t think I was gonna be so emotional. I was just being so strong and putting up such a front that when I was there all of that went away.”
Hatcher’s experience was mirrored across the nation this graduation season by people who also lost young family members to homicide.
In Lansing, Michigan, two parents accepted their daughters’ posthumously awarded diplomas. One of the students was Arianna DeLa Cruz, a 17-year-old who was shot and killed in 2021 while on her way to the store to pick up diapers for a friend’s baby, according to the Lansing State Journal. The other student, 17-year-old Allayah Walker-Travis, was shot and killed in February 2022. Her 16-year-old boyfriend has been arrested and charged with the killing, Fox 47 reported.
While some of the students, like Shamara, were killed years before they reached their senior year, others were killed in the days – or even hours – before their graduation ceremonies. In Fresno, California, 18-year-old Zoe Salinas was shot and killed the night before she was due to get her diploma. Her sister then accepted it in her honor. Salinas’s 19-year-old boyfriend has been arrested for shooting the teen, ABC 30 reported.
And on 31 May, less than 12 hours before his peers would wake up to get ready for their commencement, 18-year-old Billy Scott Jr died after being shot while sitting in a car in Sacramento, California. Scott’s father donned his son’s blue graduation gown and received a diploma on the teenager’s behalf.
“I know that’s what he wanted so bad, I was so proud to put on that cap and gown and represent him … because that’s me.” Billy Scott Sr told CBS Sacramento.
“It was tragic and it’s sad … He was at a place of completion and moving on,” said Ezell Humphrey-Grant, the program manager and field coordinator for Movement 4 Life, a violence prevention nonprofit in Sacramento. Humphrey-Grant was one of several community members who helped Scott’s family and friends get mental health support, grief services and even food in the days after the killing.
He says it gives families “a sense of belonging” to participate in their children’s graduation ceremonies. “You can let the family know that they’re supported,” he said. And for other teens, seeing a parent have to stand in for their deceased child could hopefully steer the young people who knew them or heard their story away from the cycle of gun violence.
“They want change,” Humphrey-Grant said of local teens. “It’s sad that it’s these situations that spark change but we have to be there for them because they’re losing their friends and family, and the kids are getting tired of it.”
He pointed out that Billy had just won a state championship with Grant high school, and had a promising career ahead of him. So if they want to honor Billy, he said: “Choose the same route that he was choosing to go.”
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