Over the past three days, Jeremiah E. Burke High School has been a locus of pain for the surrounding Dorchester community. After 17-year-old Raekwon Brown, a junior at the school, was fatally shot Wednesday afternoon just steps from the school’s entrance, residents have struggled to understand why Brown, a gregarious student with good grades and near-perfect attendance, was killed.
But at Friday’s graduation ceremony, the 121 seniors, along with their parents and city officials, coalesced around a message of resilience, even as Mayor Martin J. Walsh acknowledged the violent toll on some Boston neighborhoods.
“I’m sad that for many of you, this is not your first exposure to violence,’’ Walsh said in his commencement address before the school’s packed auditorium. “I’m upset that no matter how much we bring down the shootings and the homicides in our city, the same community bears the brunt of the violence. There’s an injustice behind that, and we should all be upset with that.’’
Brown was killed shortly after a fire alarm sounded at the Burke on Wednesday, prompting students to file outside into the warm June afternoon. Then the gunshots exploded — between five and seven of them, according to witnesses, leaving Brown bleeding on the sidewalk and two other students injured. A 67-year-old woman was also grazed. The killer remains at large.
“You’re grieving for Raekwon and his family. You’re sad, angry, and upset. You have every right to be,” Walsh said. “The question is, what do we do with these feelings?”
In a speech that quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President Barack Obama, and Maya Angelou, Walsh urged the seniors to recognize the role they could play in curbing the violence that took Brown’s life.
The mayor’s office sponsors initiatives like summer jobs programs and second-chance programs, Walsh said. But it is students like those at the Burke who hold the greatest potential to reshape their neighborhood and their city.
“You are setting out on your next journey, but you are still grounded in this community and this school,” Walsh said. “Your turning point today is not just your own. It’s a moment of hope for our city.”
The auditorium, which was decked in blue and white balloons and filled with beaming families, showed no sign of the tragedy that had struck just yards away. Indeed, the ceremony was dominated by a sense of raucous celebration. And with good reason: Burke was named most improved school in Boston last year, and was the first and only school in Massachusetts to rise out of “turnaround” status.
Walsh, who had been scheduled to speak at the graduation before the shooting, repeatedly highlighted the school’s transformation in his speech, citing it as an example of the seniors’ potential to change not only their school but the world.
Headmaster Lindsa McIntyre, who opened the ceremony, held a moment of silence for Brown. And, like Walsh, she reminded students of their agency in the face of violence and trauma.
“While we grieve the loss of our young warrior, we rise. We rise to the hope of a brighter future,” she said. “We know that tomorrow is not promised. Thus . . . we commit to defeating poverty, defeating anguish, defeating violence, defeating bigotry, and claiming equity and equality for everybody.”
Onstage with the headmaster and the mayor was Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans, who the previous day had issued a stern rebuke to students for not stepping forward with information about Brown’s murder. Evans struck a more conciliatory tone Friday, telling reporters before the ceremony that he hoped his presence that night would signal to students that the city’s police force is behind them.
“I’m here on behalf of the police department just to say we’re here for them, and we’re grieving with them, and we wish them the best,” Evans said.
After the ceremony, students wearing flowing blue graduation gowns and hand-decorated mortarboards spilled into the cafeteria to celebrate with their families. In the tumult of relatives and teachers calling for snapshots and students’ triumphant high-fives, opinions diverged on if and how Brown’s death had affected the night.
“I’m very happy about the graduation, but at the same time I’m so sad for the boy,” said Andrea Galay, whose daughter graduated that evening. “I know everybody’s remembering him. I have him on my mind.”
Kylie Anderson, who had just graduated, said the tragedy “definitely” influenced the tone of the evening, but in a positive manner. “I feel like it just motivated people more to move on from high school and keep pushing,” she said.
“At the end of the day, we’re all one big family, and we’re going to support each other,” said Luis Torres, another new graduate, before he was snatched away for a photograph. “It’s sad that we lost him and that he couldn’t finish his school year, but he’s in a better place looking down now, and he’s happy for us.”
Charisse Brathwaite, the mother of a graduate, echoed Walsh’s emphasis on the Burke’s remarkable transformation.
“It’s a great school, with great kids,” she said. “I’m satisfied, and I’m comfortable with the school.”
A step removed from the chaos, Chris Bishop stood by the wall and smiled at the room full of teenagers embracing and snapping selfies.
“This is what it’s all about,” said Bishop, dean of student engagement and athletic director at the school. “It was an unfortunate incident that occurred, but the community has to heal, and these kids deserve to be celebrated.”Vivian Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @vwang3.