School Climate & Safety

The Lost Graduate: Remembering a Student Gunned Down at School

An empty chair. A moment of silence. The poignant gestures to remember students who should have graduated this spring
By Catherine Gewertz — June 13, 2022 3 min read
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It’s been two and a half years since Jonathon Parker was fatally shot in the parking lot of his California high school. For his family, the pain comes in waves, and it’s spiking again now, as his classmates graduate.

“We see everyone getting ready for their prom, for graduation, all the senior festivities, and it just breaks our hearts,” said Aurora Solorio, Jonathon’s aunt.

Fused with the pain of his loss is fear that he’ll be forgotten. Solorio worked hard to ensure that Jonathon has a place in the graduating class at Deer Valley High in Antioch. The folding chair that would have held the tall boy with the streaming black hair instead held a photo of him adorned with a pair of angel wings. Solorio made sure the yearbook included photos of him. She bought a cap and gown, in his school colors of teal and black, on Amazon.

For families who have lost children, any milestone brings renewed waves of grief. Birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, end-of-school-year rituals and celebrations. School shooting incidents have taken the lives of two dozen children this year alone, EdWeek’s school shooting tracker shows.

Graduation ceremonies have marked the absence of some of those young people.

At Oxford High School, in Oxford, Mich., attendees at the May 19 commencement observed a moment of silence for 2022 class members Justin Shilling, 17, and Madisyn Baldwin, 17, and two younger students, who died when a fellow student shot them at the school on Nov. 30, 2021.

From left: Justin Shilling, Madisyn Baldwin, Jonathon Parker

Other chairs around the country are empty at graduations this year, too, because of gun violence. And with dozens of younger children fallen to school shootings, there will be many more empty chairs at graduations for years to come. Each one marks an epidemic the country struggles to understand and address.

A chair for ‘Jon-Jon’

On the football field at Deer Valley High, where commencement took place June 10, a fabric seat cover was stretched over the metal folding chair where Jonathon would have sat had a 15-year-old student not shot him fatally outside a basketball game at his school on Jan. 30, 2020. A family friend had photoshopped the seat cover to include a graduation cap.

When Deer Valley High officials announced Jonathon’s name, his mother, Alizcia Gurule, came down from the bleachers to accept an honorary diploma for him. Solorio said it was such an emotionally wrenching day that she wasn’t certain her sister would be able to complete the walk to the stage and back.

Solorio wants Jonathon remembered fully: for his kindness, for the big, teddy-bearish presence the 6-foot-4 teenager brought into a room. For the way he loved to spend weekend nights at home with his mom or his dad.

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The family has kept his memory alive with a string of giving-back events in his honor. They raised $500 this year for a scholarship in his name. Last Thanksgiving, they fed 20 families. At Christmas, they “adopt” a family and give them gifts. On Jonathon’s 18th birthday, they had a shoe drive and donated the shoes to needy families.

‘An uphill battle’ to commemorate slain teenager

But it was “an uphill battle” to ensure that his high school acknowledged his place in the graduating class of 2022, Solorio said.

She asked school officials to provide information about ordering a cap and gown—a key element of a “memory box” she wanted to make for her sister—but by the time she got it, the deadline had passed, Solorio said. Instead, she ordered them on Amazon. She asked if the family could display a picture of Jonathon on stage, but that request was turned down, she said.

Deer Valley High Principal Bukky Oyebade noted in an email to Education Week that the school paid tribute to Jonathon in its 2020 yearbook, and delivered that edition, free of charge, to the family’s home. It also erected a plaque in his memory near the library, she said. This year’s yearbook features a tribute to Jonathon, as well, and the school awarded him a posthumous diploma, she said.

“In recognition that this is an emotional time for Jonathon’s family, it is Deer Valley’s sincere intent to honor Jonathon,” the principal’s email said.

Still, Solorio said, she wishes the school had initiated this year’s remembrances of her nephew. “They never reached out to us, saying we want to remember Jonathon,” she said. “That hurts.”

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