Biden, DJ Khaled among those encouraging Parkland grads

Brooke Baitinger
South Florida Sun Sentinel

PARKLAND, Fla. — At the graduation ceremony for Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ Class of 2021, students who survived a deadly school shooting in their first year and a global pandemic in their last year of high school received their diplomas and honored lost loved ones.

They were the last group of students who survived the shooting on Feb. 14, 2018, when they were in the ninth grade. Nine of their classmates were killed in the shooting: Alyssa Alhadeff, 14; Martin Duque Anguiano, 14; Jaime Guttenberg, 14; Luke Hoyer, 15; Cara Loughran, 14; Gina Montalto, 14; Alaina Petty, 14; Alexander Schachter, 14; and Peter Wang, 15.

A 10th student from the Class of 2021, Calvin Desir, later took his life after the shooting. The students were honored, and their family members walked across the stage in their place to accept their honorary diplomas.

“This group experienced unthinkable tragedy. Your freshman year was torn apart as a result of senseless violence,” said Principal Michelle Kefford. “For most of you, the last year and a half was experienced online as the result of a global pandemic. You rose above tragedy and heartache and accomplished so many amazing things.”

Seventeen people were killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and 17 others were injured.

‘Thrived’: School board members Lori Alhadeff and Debra Hixon, who both lost loved ones in the tragedy, spoke to the students about their resiliency.

“You not only survived, but you thrived through many challenging times in the last few years,” said Hixon, whose husband, Chris Hixon, died protecting students in the shooting. She reflected on how the students’ activism inspired movements globally to advocate for safer schools. “You can do anything,” she said.

Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter Alyssa was killed in the shooting, addressed the group and looked up toward the sky for a brief moment.

“I stand here painfully aware that my daughter Alyssa and nine other beautiful students would have been graduating here with you today but for the tragic events of February 14th, 2018,” she said.

She told the students that in choosing a theme for her speech, the world resilience came to mind.

“I would say it was your resilience that distinguishes you and empowers you these last four years,” she said. “Not only did you endure the tragedy and trauma that arrived on Valentine’s Day your freshman year, but also the challenges of a worldwide pandemic, which turned our world upside down.”

Being ‘the light’: DJ Khaled submitted a video message and told the students they inspired him and the rest of the world.

“Even through hard times, dark times, you was able to be the light,” he said. “Being the light is the most powerful thing in the world. You’re the future, new world, new generation, and you’re gonna run it and be our next presidents, doctors, athletes, musicians.

“To graduate is a big accomplishment,” he said. “You really stood up and represented that light and love, and it’s powerful and we can feel it worldwide.”

Just before the students were set to walk across the stage, a special video was played featuring comments by dozens of celebrities, including Demi Lovato, Jennifer Hudson, Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O’Neal, Lil Nas X, Harry Styles, and more. At the end of the video, President Joe Biden appeared on the screen from the East Room of the White House.

“I know you’ve heard from a lot of folks today, but I wanted to add my congratulations to the graduates,” he said in the video. “Three years ago, your lives and the lives of this community changed in an instant. This class lost a piece of its soul. You’ve been tested in ways no young person should ever have to face – from freshman year, a year of unspeakable loss, to a junior and senior year upended by a pandemic.

“The story of this class and the Parkland community isn’t just a story of pain,” he said. “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.”

He went on to tell the students how optimistic they’ve made him about the country’s future.

“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.”