Biden surprises Parkland graduates with a message: ‘This class lost a piece of its soul’

Miami Herald | by Michael Wilner and Carli Teproff | June 8, 2021


President Joe Biden surprised graduates of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland with a video address on Tuesday night, celebrating the class for “turning pain into purpose and darkness to light” after surviving the deadliest high school shooting in American history, followed by the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Three years ago, your lives and the lives of this community changed in an instant,” Biden told the graduates in a video from the East Room of the White House. “This class lost a piece of its soul. You’ve been tested in ways no young person should ever have to face — from a freshman year, a year of unspeakable loss, to a junior and senior year upended by a pandemic.”

The video, obtained by McClatchy, was aired at Tuesday evening’s graduation ceremony for Class of 2021 graduates, who were in their freshman year when a gunman opened fire at their school on February 14, 2018. The gunman killed 17 and injured 17 others.

Of the victims, nine would have graduated Tuesday. Instead their parents received their honorary diplomas in a shadow box, which also had a cap, stole and MSD pin. A 10th student, who took his life in 2019, was also honored at the ceremony, which was shown live on YouTube.

“There won’t be any limos for my family or pictures in cap & gown,” Max Schachter said in a Twitter post Tuesday about his son Alex before the graduation. “I will be walking across the stage instead of Alex to collect his phantom diploma.”

Those who would have graduated with their peers: Alyssa Alhadeff, Martin DuqueJaime Guttenberg, Luke HoyerCara LoughranGina MontaltoAlaina PettyAlex SchachterPeter Wang and Calvin Desir.

The students graduating Tuesday were only ninth-graders when former student Nikolas Cruz entered the hallways of the freshman building and began shooting students and staff members with an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle. In all, 14 students and 3 staff members lost their lives.

Cruz, who faces the death penalty, is still awaiting trial.

In the years since the shooting, several parents have become activists against gun violence. Alyssa’s mother Lori Alhadeff joined the school board, as did Chris Hixon’s wife Debra.

“The story of this class and the Parkland community isn’t just a story of pain. It’s a story of resilience, turning pain to purpose and darkness to light. This is the legacy you’re building, and the legacy you’ll continue to build,” Biden said.

“No graduating class gets to choose the world into which they graduate. But every once in a while, every few generations, young people come along at a point in history with a chance to make real change,” he said. “The world has already seen just how capable you are, how strong you are, how resilient you are. There’s no question you’re already changing the world.”

The ceremony, held at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, began with honoring the missing members of the graduating class and then went on to video messages and speeches.

“I just want to take my time to say congratulations,” said DJ Khaled in a video. “You inspire the world. Love is the key. Love is the answer.”

In February,three years after the mass shooting, Biden issued a statement promising his administration would not wait for the next mass shooting before acting “to end our epidemic of gun violence and make our schools and communities safer.” Since then, dozens of mass shooting events have occurred across the country, including in San Jose, California; Atlanta; Boulder, Colorado; and Hialeah.

While Biden in April called on Congress to pass legislation that would reduce gun violence, his initial executive actions have been modest. That month the president directed the Justice Department to draw up model “red flag” laws for states that could allow family members to request restrictions on firearm sales, issue a proposal to help stem the proliferation of “ghost guns,” and publish an annual report on firearms trafficking.

In addition to the tragedy of their freshman year, graduates say the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even harder to have a normal high school experience.

Mickella Jean-Baptiste told the Miami Herald earlier this year how she and her fellow students have struggled.

“Our school had barely recovered from post-traumatic stress disorder and boom, COVID happens,” she said. “The seniors, we haven’t even seen each other — no homecoming, no Spirit Week, no Grad Bash, a prom limited to six-person pods and no dancing. We only had one normal year of high school.”

The words resilient and perseverance were a common theme in most of the graduation speeches.

“Three years ago you endured one of the worst moments in our nation’s history, and a couple of short years later you endure a world-altering pandemic,” said singer Demi Lovato in a video. “To say you have endured challenges and struggles to get here is the understatement of the century. You have already set yourself up to succeed, and one of life’s greatest lessons is perseverance….Speak from experience that every fight is worth the struggle. Keep making the world a better place.”

A memorial sits near Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Saturday, February 13, 2021. Three years ago on February 14, 2018, a gunman entered the school and killed 14 students and three staff members. MATIAS J. OCNER MOCNER@MIAMIHERALD.COM
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