© Salwan Georges/The Washington Post A framed photo of Excel Academy senior Markel Scott, and his cap and gown occupy the front row during graduation Friday at Notre Dame of Maryland University.

When principal Tammatha Woodhouse pronounced 104 Excel Academy seniors high school graduates Friday night, tassels flipped to the right, caps flew and the room exploded with noise. It’s a sound heard around the country at this time of year, but perhaps none louder than the cries—even shrieks—of joy and relief that erupted from these Baltimore families. 

These were the students who made it through high school alive.

Five didn’t. Five of the roughly 300 teens who started the school year at Excel never made it to the end. They were killed in the epidemic of gun violence that has claimed 146 victims through the end of May and made Baltimore “the toughest city in America to grow up in,” as the local politician who addressed the graduates called it.

Five shot dead, one every five and a half weeks between the fall and spring. More shootings than fire drills, more funerals than standardized tests.

“You will take them wherever you go,” said Baltimore City Councilmember Brandon Scott, himself a product of these unforgiving city streets who remembered burying classmates as a teenager. “You have to make sure that you live that life that they could have lived.”

The seniors at Excel Academy at Francis M. Wood High School listened, hearing nothing about the toughness of life they didn’t already know. Those in the front row of the auditorium of Notre Dame of Maryland University sat next to one seat that held an empty cap and gown and a photograph: Markel “Kel” Scott, who would have crossed the stage with them if a hail of slugs hadn’t ended his life at 19.

Kel was number four, gunned down by unknown shooters in March, wearing his school backpack, waiting for a ride home from an East Baltimore neighborhood.

The first was Tre’Quan Bullock, a jeans-loving 18-year-old, shot in October. His murder remains unsolved.

Two months later, Excel Junior Lavar Douglas was shot by a Coppin State University police officer in West Baltimore after allegedly opening fire at another car. Prosecutors ruled the officers use of force justified.

In February, the night before Excel’s senior inauguration dinner, assailants chased a jovial Excel student named Bryant Beverly into a house for unknown reasons and shot him. He died a few days later. Police have made no arrests to date. He was 18.

And at the very end of April, Steven Jackson, an 18-year-old Excel junior, was found shot dead in a double homicide that remains under investigation.

“He was a very respectful kid,” said Giselle Maiden, a guidance counselor at the school for the last 10 years. “None of them were what people might label as bad kids. They were good kids.”

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Source: The Washington Post / Steve Hendrix