BRENTWOOD, N.Y. (AP) — Approximately 1,200 high school students in Brentwood, Long Island graduated on Sunday capping a tumultuous year of gang violence that started with the killing of two fellow students.
"Brentwood has afforded us the opportunity to gain exposure to diverse cultures, to showcase our multiple gifts and talents and to change without apology," said Reeda Iqbal, Harvard-bound valedictorian at Brentwood High School's Sonderling Center campus.
Iqbal, whose parents emigrated from Pakistan, and Michael Simoes, valedictorian at the school's Ross Center campus, have said their stories of scholarship and perseverance deserve as much attention as the carnage .
"Without your support, encouragement and sometimes unsolicited advice, our failures may have dictated our futures," said Simoes, who plans on becoming a surgeon. "But we are a resilient group. Our failures and challenges inform our future successes for we embrace whatever opportunities allow us to grow."
The topic of gang violence was mostly absent on a day that celebrated the future, but Ross Center principal Richard Loeschner brought it to the forefront when he asked for a moment of silence for the victims. Democratic State Assemblyman Phil Ramos presented the school with a $500,000 check for gang prevention programs on behalf of the 2017 class.
The suburban New York community has experienced a spate of brutal violence. A street gang with Central American ties, MS-13, has been accused of 11 killings in Brentwood and neighboring Central Islip since the school year began. Most of the victims are teenagers. The cases caught the attention of President Donald Trump, who in April dispatched Attorney General Jeff Sessions to Long Island pledging to stem the violence.
Sonderling salutatorian Nicholas Otero told the audience to "rise above the stereotypes and insinuations the media has made upon our community."
"Rise to your potential in this world, rise to force people to look up and take notice of the greatness that is Brentwood, that is us, the class of 2017," Ortero said.