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Birmingham High School Graduation Honors Students Who Were Shot and Killed

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Gabriell White stands with her daughter after the Jackson-Olin High School graduation ceremony Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Birmingham. Her 16-year-old, Jada White, with photo in chair, was shot and killed in 2023, and was honored during the graduation. (Alaina Bookman, AL.com)

By Alaina Bookman | abookman@al.com

This is another installment in Birmingham Times/AL.com/CBS42 joint series “Beyond the Violence: what can be done to address Birmingham’s rising homicide rate.” Sign up for the newsletter here.

As P.D. Jackson Olin High School graduates walked across the stage in their green gowns and gold stoles, proud parents and loved ones cheered them on. And when the names of the students’ former classmates were called, the Birmingham arena erupted into cheers.

Since January 2022, 14 Birmingham City School students have been shot and killed. Gun violence, currently the leading cause of death among Alabama’s youth, is an epidemic in the city. On Thursday, parents walked the stage in place of five children who died before graduation.

“That’s what my daughter wanted. Before she died she told me that night ‘when spring break is over mommy you’ll have senior,’ so that’s what she wanted. She wanted to graduate and she wanted to go to school. That’s why it was important,” Gabriell White said. Her 16-year-old, Jada, died in 2023.

While on stage, Nichole Davis Williams, the principal of Jackson Olin, shook hands with her graduates and fixed their stoles and graduation caps before they posed for photos with diplomas.

Before the ceremony, Williams also made time to set up chairs and carefully place photos on the seats of the five former students: Kavas JemisonJonathan ThomasLe’Breil DavisJada White and Caleb Whitt.

She balanced the green graduation caps on top of the photos, draped multicolored cords behind them and placed a small candle in front of their plaques, honoring the five children.

“This was a really important rite of passage for them and for them not to be able to make it, it just kept pulling on my heart to do something. So we came up with the idea to decorate the chair as if the child was sitting there,” Williams said.

“Now on the way in here I had the crate with all the pictures and everything and I didn’t realize the students were watching and going through my crate and asking, ‘can we please just look at them one more time.’ And I was moved to tears because I didn’t know they were watching and they said, ‘we thought you forgot about them.’ I’m so glad I did it because it’s important for them to know we didn’t forget. And the parents are very, very happy to see this and I’m happy to have been able to provide this opportunity.”

Birmingham City Schools is working on multiple programs to help students impacted by violence and to teach conflict resolution skills. Data shows that those programs are making a difference. And simple gestures also help students feel known and appreciated, educators say.

Three white and green graduation cords sat wrapped around Jada White’s photo. During her time at Jackson Olin, White was a member of the Key Club, a cheerleader and a soccer player.

Loved ones said White was studious, outgoing and free spirited.

“She wanted to be a nurse. She wanted to work with the babies so she wanted to be in the NICU. She loved babies, she loved pets,” White said.

She said she wants anyone who knew her daughter to keep Jada in their memories.

Lekeitha Davis holds a photo of her son, Le’Breil Davis, 15, who was shot and killed in 2021. Davis was honored during the Jackson-Olin High School graduation ceremony. (Alaina Bookman, AL.com)

Lekeitha Davis, Le’Breil Davis’ mother, shared the same hope.

“To know him was to love him…He’s 18 now, but at the time he was 15. If I would have known back when I had him in 2005, I probably wouldn’t have had a child, because why would I have a child for someone to take him away from me,” Davis said with tears in her eyes. “They should have been here. He was just an innocent child riding in the car. I never thought I would be burying my own child.”

Williams said she hopes her newly minted high school graduates will begin changing their community for the better and honor friends who are no longer alive.

“I hope they become members of the community who really care about the forward movement of the community. Who care about reaching back and helping others. Who care about education. Who care about stopping the violence. Who care about just making the community a better place to live. I hope they remember that. I hope they work toward that and know that they are really, really important components of this and they can make a difference. I want them to stand up and use their voices and make a difference,” Williams said.