National News

4 Parkland Seniors Who Died in School Shooting Are Honored at Graduation

Posted June 4, 2018 2:08 p.m. EDT
Updated June 4, 2018 2:12 p.m. EDT

The names of four students that echoed through a South Florida arena Sunday laid bare how much has changed for the Class of 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

They were Nicholas Dworet, Joaquin Oliver, Meadow Pollack and Carmen Schentrup — the four seniors among the 17 people killed Feb. 14 when a gunman opened fire inside the school in Parkland, Florida.

When the names rang out Sunday, their families walked onto the stage to receive what would have been for them: a diploma, a medal, and a cap and tassel. As Joaquin’s name was called, his mother, Patricia Oliver, received a frame enclosing the items and hoisted it in the air.

The front of her bright-yellow shirt had five words: This should be my son.

Since the shooting on Valentine’s Day, when 14 students and three staff members were killed, a group of surviving students and parents of the victims have led a vocal gun-control movement that has spread across the country.

With the November midterm elections in mind, survivors of the shooting said Monday that they would take their gun-control and voter-registration message on a two-month bus tour of the country this summer, seeking to raise awareness of the preponderance of school shootings, the easy availability of weapons and the financial ties of many politicians to the National Rifle Association.

“We are trying to get the most people to vote,” said Emma González, who graduated from the school Sunday and is one of the movement’s most prominent leaders. She and others, holding placards with the slogan “Road to Change,” said they planned to visit about 75 communities around the nation, as well as every congressional district in Florida.

The activists’ biggest effort so far was the March for Our Lives, a series of demonstrations on March 24 around the country and overseas. More recently, Stoneman Douglas students protested the Publix supermarket chain’s support of a Republican candidate for governor, Adam Putnam, a strong proponent of the NRA. On May 25, faced with students staging a “die-in” by lying on the floor of a Publix supermarket in Coral Springs, the chain said it would immediately suspend all contributions to political campaigns.

After spending much of the last three months under a media glare, the Stoneman Douglas seniors tried to keep Sunday’s graduation ceremony to themselves, with reporters barred from attending.

But everything about the ceremony, which was moved because of its size to the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, where the NHL’s Florida Panthers play, underscored how the students’ lives have been altered.

Speaking during an event that was largely somber but spattered with moments of laughter and joy, Class President Julia Cordover implored her friends not to be afraid of taking on “unexpected and rough situations.” Of course, she noted, that is exactly what they have done in the 109 days since the shooting.

“It was perfect timing to say that we already are the present generation,” Cordover told CNN on Monday morning. “We have to stay strong and keep moving forward and creating impact.”

In addition to honoring the four students who were killed, the school also gave an award to the three staff members who died: Scott Beigel, Aaron Feis and Chris Hixon.

On Monday morning, Scot Peterson, the former sheriff’s deputy assigned to the school, broke his silence for the first time since the shooting. Peterson retired days after the shooting after being heavily criticized, including by President Donald Trump and his own department, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, for staying outside the school during attack.

Peterson defended his actions, saying that he followed proper protocol: He ordered the school to lock down, cleared students out of a courtyard and took cover behind a building, believing that the gunman could have been hiding on a rooftop. The suspect, Nikolas Cruz, escaped unnoticed while Peterson was outside.

“It’s haunting,” Peterson told The Washington Post. “I’ve cut that day up a thousand ways with a million different what-if scenarios, but the bottom line is I was there to protect, and I lost 17.”

The program for Sunday’s ceremony did not list a commencement speaker. But there was a surprise speaker: Jimmy Fallon.

“Every bad experience can have something good come out of it,” said Fallon, “The Tonight Show” host, according to the WPLG television station in Miami. “You guys have already proved that. You took something horrific — instead of letting it stop you, you started a movement, not just here in Florida but around the whole world. The whole world has heard your voice and that was you making a choice.”