Parkland survivors keep memory of shooting alive

An empty chair is seen in front of flowers and mementoes placed on a fence to commemorate the victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, U.S., February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Carlos Garcia Rawlins

PARKLAND, Fla. (Reuters) – Hundreds of seniors in red caps and gowns at their Parkland, Florida high school graduation ceremony on June 3 listened intently to speakers who told them what they could achieve. “Don’t let anything stop you,” one said.

But when student Joaquin Oliver’s name was read out by the principal, it was his parents Manuel Oliver and Patricia Padauy who walked onto the stage to receive his diploma.

Joaquin, 17, was one of the 17 students and staff members killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018. The massacre by a former student who stormed classrooms on Valentine’s Day with an assault rifle has spurred unprecedented activism by victims’ families to prevent future gun violence.

“This Should Be My Son,” read the words on the bright yellow t-shirt Patricia wore for the ceremony at an indoor arena in the nearby city of Sunrise.

Since the mass shooting, Manuel Oliver, a 50-year-old artistic director, has traveled across the country, building murals in honor of his son. He calls the murals “Walls of Demand.”

In Los Angeles, he painted a mural with rifle targets set atop a silhouette of an image of Joaquin as he walked to school that day with a bouquet of sunflowers in his hand to give to his girlfriend. Once completed, he drove a hammer into the mural 17 times, one for each victim, and hung a sunflower in each hole.

He says he enters a trance while painting as he connects with memories of his son: the motor-bike they built together in the family garage, for instance, and endless games of basketball.

As he works, he listens with his son’s headphones to the music they used to enjoy together, often the Ramones or Guns N’ Roses.

Manuel says the murals are more than a way to drain his anger and sorrow.

“What the hell does it matter how I feel? This isn’t about me, this is about my kid,” he said in an interview in Florida, a few days after he painted the Los Angeles mural.

“Joaquin’s picture is a protest. Joaquin is a martyr, killed by a murderer who was endorsed by system that allows these things to happen.”


Manuel and Patricia now dedicate their time to an organization that seeks to empower youth leaders called Change The Ref (CTR), a name inspired by a conversation with Joaquin about the referee of one of his basketball games.

The group aims to use art and “nonviolent creative confrontation” to keep people talking about the victims and pressuring lawmakers to pass stricter gun regulations.

“You took something horrific, and instead of letting it stop you, you started a movement,” the comedian Jimmy Fallon told students and victims’ families in the commencement address at the June 3 graduation ceremony.

Carlos Rodriguez, a 17-year-old Stoneman Douglas student who witnessed the shooting, launched a social media project called Stories Untold to collate footage of the incident. It has evolved into a broader effort to encourage victims of gun violence around the country to share their stories.

He says the reaction to Parkland was notably different from previous mass shootings, in part because it affected a group of teenagers well-versed in using social media.

The Parkland attack “affected high-school kids, millennials, Generation Z-ers – we practically have a road map of what we need to do.”

He was infuriated by the May 18 shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston, Texas that killed 10.

“It was like we were reliving what happened at our school. I wanted to be there with those students.”

Parkland, a once quiet Florida suburb, is now filled with memorials and posters alongside its streets, parks and shops, demanding stricter gun control. Almost 70 percent of American adults support strong or moderate restrictions for firearms, a Reuters/Ipsos poll in May found.

President Donald Trump has vowed not to tighten firearms laws despite multiple mass shootings this year and instead called for arming teachers and increasing school security.

Daniela Menescal, 17, was hit by shrapnel during the Parkland attack and saw several classmates killed.

Now recovered from her injuries, she puts her energy into spending time with family and focuses on studying piano and playing tennis to avoid thinking about that day.

“We’ve become a more united community after everything that happened,” said Menescal. “With the leadership of my classmates, we can raise our voices so that people understand that these changes need to happen.”


(Additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Writing by Angus Berwick; editing by Diane Craft)

After tough week, Trump looks for a lift at Liberty University

U.S. President Donald Trump gestures while attending a “celebration of military mothers" at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Saturday is set to deliver the commencement address – his first as president – to Liberty University, the nation’s largest Christian college, where he is expected to find to a friendly audience after a week of turmoil in Washington.

Trump has been closeted in the White House all week, making only a few, brief public appearances after he took the highly unusual and fraught step of abruptly firing James Comey as FBI director on Tuesday.

Dismissing the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation at a time when the agency probes alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election has overshadowed Trump’s push to boost jobs through tax reform and a massive infrastructure program.

The Lynchburg, Virginia, college should provide a receptive crowd for Trump’s economic message. He campaigned there during his run for office and was bolstered by the endorsement of its president, Jerry Falwell Jr., who helped secure support from religious conservatives.

“He’s going to tell them what he wants to do to make their careers run more smoothly and make it easier for them to raise families,” Falwell told WDBJ7, a CBS television affiliate in Roanoke, Virginia, about Trump’s message to graduates.

“I’ve been working with his speech writers and I think he’s going to deliver a wonderful speech that will be personal to Liberty,” Falwell said in the interview.

Trump has expressed frustration that the Russia probe has loomed over his presidency. He insisted this week that he fired Comey over his performance, not because of the investigation, but the timing of the dismissal and his comments afterward have raised alarms with his critics.

Trump, who has been preparing for his first foreign trip to the Middle East and Europe late next week, also will deliver the commencement address to the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, on Wednesday.

“To young Americans at both schools, I will be bringing a message of hope and optimism about our nation’s bright future,” Trump said in his weekly address to the nation.

Trump will encourage students to “be a force for good in the world by standing up for the values that Liberty has taught them,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said.

Liberty University said it expects more than 7,000 of its 18,000 graduates to participate in the ceremonies, most of whom earned their degree online. Past commencements have attracted as many as 40,000 people, the college said.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Bill Trott)

Historically black university in Texas cancels Senator’s speech

FILE PHOTO: Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) speaks during a news conference following party policy lunch meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. on August 4, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – U.S. Senator John Cornyn will no longer deliver the commencement address at Texas Southern University this weekend, the school said on Friday, after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was booed at another historically black university.

More than 800 people signed a petition started by a Texas Southern University student who opposed the university’s invitation to the Republican senator to speak at Saturday’s graduation in Houston.

The petition said Cornyn’s backing of DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, among other things, showed that he supported “discriminatory policies and politicians.”

“We have the right to decide if we want to refuse to sit and listen to the words of a politician who chooses to use his political power in ways that continually harm marginalized and oppressed people,” the petition said.

The university, which will graduate more than 1,100 students on Saturday, said every effort had been made to ensure its ceremony was a celebration that would be remembered for the right reasons.

Cornyn has been invited to meet with Texas Southern University students in the future, the school said in a statement.

Libby Hambleton, a spokeswoman for Cornyn, said in an email that the senator was honored to have been invited to speak, but that he “respects the administration’s decision and looks forward to continuing to engage with the university in the future.”

It was not immediately clear who would replace Cornyn at the ceremony.

Texas Southern University’s action came after graduates at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida, booed, jeered and turned their backs on DeVos in protest on Wednesday as the education secretary gave a commencement speech.

Bethune-Cookman students, alumni and political activists, angered by comments DeVos has made about historically black colleges and universities, gathered tens of thousands of signatures on petitions seeking to have the invitation to DeVos rescinded.

DeVos, who is a proponent of school choice, said in February that such schools were “real pioneers” when it came to choice, without acknowledging racism as the main factor that led to the creation of such institutions.

She subsequently noted that historically black colleges were created because other institutions were not open to African-Americans.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing Daniel Wallis)

Graduates at Florida university turn backs in protest of DeVos speech

FILE PHOTO - Betsy DeVos, U.S. Secretary of Education, speaks during the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S. on May 1, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

By Bernie Woodall

(Reuters) – Graduating seniors at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida turned their backs in protest of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at the start of her commencement speech on Wednesday at the historically black institution.

Boos and jeers could be heard as DeVos, who drew ire in February when she said historically black colleges were “pioneers” of educational choice, was introduced. Faculty and school administrators on stage stood and applauded.

Live video of the ceremony in Daytona Beach showed many graduates facing away from DeVos, though it was not clear how many of the approximately 300 seniors participated in the silent protest.

“One of the hallmarks of higher education and of democracy is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom we disagree,” DeVos told the graduates.

The university’s president, Edison Jackson, interrupted her speech with a warning to students. “If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you,” he said. “Choose which way you want to go.”

Ahead of the speech, students, alumni and political activists sought to have DeVos’ invitation rescinded, saying they were offended by her earlier comment. DeVos, who is a proponent of school choice – including charter schools and school vouchers – later clarified her remark, noting that historically black colleges were created because other institutions were not open to African-Americans.

About 60,000 signatures on two petitions were delivered to school officials on Tuesday objecting to her appearance at the university.

“Right now is not the time for Secretary DeVos to speak at any historically black college,” said Dominik Whitehead, a Bethune-Cookman alumnus who led one of the petition drives. DeVos’ statement, he said, “just shows she is out of touch.”

In a statement on Sunday, President Donald Trump said DeVos chose Bethune-Cookman for her first commencement address as education secretary to show the Republican administration’s dedication to the mission of historically black colleges and universities.

Jackson, an African-American and a Republican, and some others defended the choice of DeVos as the graduation speaker for the school, which was named for black educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune.

Sean P. Jackson, chairman of the Black Republican Caucus of Florida, said DeVos had long been a champion of providing strong education opportunities for minority students.

“The secretary says we should allow charter schools to come in and educate children if they are doing a better job than the public schools,” Jackson said on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Leslie Adler)

Officers Step In When Deputy Dies Before Son’s Graduation

When a Johnson County Arkansas deputy was shot and killed pursuing a burglary suspect the day before his son’s graduation, no one knew the way the brotherhood of officers would take care of his son.

Hours after the shooting, Dakota Smith walked across the stage at Clarksville High School to pick up his diploma.  When his name was announced, a dozen officers who had rushed to the school stood up, snapped to attention and saluted the young man in place of his late father.

“There was also a standing ovation for him and a round of applause. The moment they said his name until the moment he sat so you…definitely felt a moment there of support and love for that family,” said youth minister Chad Race.

The graduating class also showed their support for Dakota by wearing black ribbons on their graduation gowns.

“There was a lot of outpouring emotion… he received a lot of applause and rightfully so,” School Superintendent David Hopkins told KARK News.  “It took a lot of courage for him and his family to be here tonight and I know that’s where their dad would want them to be.”

Texas Cop Attends Graduation For Teen Who Lost His Parents

A Texas police officer went the extra mile when he attended the graduation of a senior who recently lost his parents.

Only a few days before Kazzie Portie’s high school graduation, officer Eric Ellison delivered bad news to the 18-year-old: Portie’s parents had been killed in a car accident. Without his parents to attend his upcoming graduation, Portie wasn’t sure if he would walk on stage. However, Ellison stepped in and encouraged the young man.

“I said, ‘You’re going to walk!’ Your mom and dad will have front-row seats looking down from heaven, and I’ll stand in their place. I’ve got your back,” Ellison told BuzzFeed News.

Portie not only received his diploma on Friday, but he also received a hug from Officer Ellison in front of a standing ovation from the audience.

“Seeing Officer Ellison there to congratulate me meant the world to me,” Portie stated to BuzzFeed News. “It was so nice to see that he actually showed a genuine care for me and my family’s situation instead of just being another ‘case.'”

Portie intends on attending college.

Student Takes Podium During Medical Emergency And Leads Prayer

An Alabama high school student rushed to the podium at graduation as a medical emergency was taking place and lead the entire crowd in a prayer.

Christian Crawford, the senior class president, said that he felt led to pray.

“Everybody, can I have your attention real quick?” he said. “We don’t know what’s going on, but we will pray. We know that prayer is power, and that God is able. Let’s pray.”

“Father God, we thank you for this day, Lord. We pray right now that whatever is going on, you will fix it, God,” he prayed. “We pray that you will heal it, God. We pray that you will redeem it, God. We pray that you will deliver it, God, because we know that you are a God who knows how to make a way.”

“And in the name of Jesus, we declare and decree in the name of Jesus that whatever is going on shall be fixed, because you are a God who is a fixer,” Crawford continued. “You are a God who is a healer. Jehovah God, Jehovah-jireh, Jehovah-nissi, Jehovah-shiloh. Fix it, Jesus. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

The prayer was met with cheers and applause by the audience.

The video of the prayer has gone viral with over 274,000 views.

“People tell me all the time, ‘Oh, you’re famous now. You’re famous now.’ And I’m like, ‘No, I’m not famous. God is famous,’” Crawford stated. “If God’s famous, being exalted because of what I prayed about, then that means I’m doing what I was supposed to do.”

“Everything I do is to God be the glory. If God is not getting the glory out of this, then all of this is in vain, and I don’t want it to be in vain,” he said.

Federal Judge Partially Upholds Christian Prayer at Graduation Event

A federal judge has stated that student-led prayer at graduation events is Constitutional after an attempt by a group that targets references to religion in public events to have all prayer banned.

The American Humanist Association (AHA) filed a complaint against the Greenville South Carolina School District, saying that they needed to remove an elementary school “graduation” ceremony from a chapel at North Greenville University and also prohibit prayers at the event.

U.S. District Court Judge George Ross Anderson, who first heard the case, said the AHA was “making a mountain out of a molehill.”  On Monday, U.S. District Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks ruled that the school-sponsored prayer could not be allowed by the School District but that any student-led prayer in permissible by the Constitution.

The school district informed the court they removed an invocation from the ceremony but allowed a student prayer.

The AHA was not happy that prayer was allowed to continue in a public space and that children were exposed to prayer.

“It’s a sad day when the courts allow students to be subjected to Christian prayers during what should be a secular graduation ceremony,” executive director Roy Speckhardt said in a statement on Tuesday. “These prayers exclude kids and families of minority faiths and no faith.”

The group plans to appeal to have all prayer removed from the event.

Supreme Court Refuses To Hear Case On Graduations In Church Buildings

The Supreme Court declined in a 7-2 decision to hear the appeal of a school district that held their graduation ceremonies inside a church building, allowing a lower court ruling to stand that holding such an event inside a church is unconstitutional.

The anti-Christian group Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit in 1990 against the Elmbrook, Wisconsin School District which had been holding their graduation ceremonies inside a non-denominational church facility.  The anti-Christianists said the mere existence of Christian symbols in the building meant the school was promoting Christianity over all other religions.

While multiple lower courts ruled in favor of the school district, the anti-Christian group continued to file appeals until the full 7th Circuit Court of Appeals overruled a three-judge 7th Circuit panel and ruled in their favor.  The Supreme Court before their formal refusal to hear the case shelved the case for two years.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented from the majority.  Justice Scalia wrote that while a school district may have to act to soothe angry people, it doesn’t mean it’s the constitution’s job to soothe hurt feelings.  The justices also noted the flawed 7th Circuit ruling was in conflict with the Supreme Court’s decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, which stated that mere offense does not equate to coercion.

Student Defies School To Share Christian Faith

A student at California’s Brawley Union High School defied the school’s leadership during his graduation ceremony speech.

The school’s officials had told Brooks Hamby, the class salutatorian, he would not be allowed to make any reference to his Christian faith during his speech.  He submitted his speech three times to the school only to have it rejected over issues of faith.

“In coming before you today, I presented three drafts of my speech, all of them denied on account of my desire to share with you my personal thoughts and inspiration to you: my Christian faith,” Hamby said in his speech.  “No man or woman has ever truly succeeded or been fulfilled on the account of living for others and not standing on what they knew in their heart was right or good.”

Hamby also quoted Matthew 5:13:  “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

Hamby has been a leader for the school’s mock-trial team and also a U.S. Senate page.