Richard Hallman got his high school diploma on Thursday morning, but he wasn’t there to receive it.
Instead, his mother walked on stage during Booker T. Washington Senior High’s graduation ceremony and wept as she accepted the diploma on behalf of her son, who was gunned down two years ago at the age of 16.
“I want to thank God that I lived to see this day because two years ago I didn’t want to be here anymore,” Tranell Harris said as she was presented with a framed cap and gown. Harris hugged and thanked the school staff who have supported her family. Then, facing the crowd at the Adrienne Arsht Center, she spoke directly to her son. “Richard, I’m proud of you, son,” she said. “I love you, son.”
Richard was in honors classes at Booker T. and played for the football team. He dreamed of one day becoming an engineer. His young life was cut short on March 24, 2015, when he was shot in Allapattah while driving to a nearby store with a relative.
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Harris was in Gainesville when she got the call that her son had been transported to Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Ryder Trauma Center. By the time she made it back to Miami, it was too late. “When I saw that surgeon, the look in his eyes, I knew my son didn’t make it,” she said. Harris immediately dropped to the hospital floor.
Two years later, Harris still doesn’t know who killed her son.
“I have no justice as of today,” she said. “That’s the hardest part for a mother not to know the truth of what happened to their child.”
There are days when Harris loses hope and wants to give up, but she said she has gotten through them by praying for the strength to make it to Richard’s graduation. It was a promise Booker T. principal William Aristide made to her shortly after her son’s death, a murder that remains unsolved.
“The principal looked at me and said, ‘Ms. Harris, I will make sure he gets his diploma because he earned it,’ ’’ Harris recalled.
In the week leading up to Richard’s graduation, Harris suffered anxiety attacks. All she could think about was that when she walked into the graduation ceremony and saw her son’s friends, it would by like “walking into my son’s funeral all over again.”
Harris cried through most of the ceremony on Thursday. When the school choir broke into the gospel song “Till We Meet Again” — “May his peace be with you till we meet again” — she was crying so hard she had to leave the auditorium.
But at the end of the ceremony, Harris said it had also been a joyful day for her. “I feel so good, I think tonight I won’t cry anymore,” she said.
Harris’ family is one of eight accepting diplomas from Miami-Dade public schools this year on behalf of children who didn’t live to see their graduation day. Miami-Dade and Broward public schools are holding high school graduations between May 31 and June 9. Another victim of gun violence, Randall Dwaine Robinson III, will graduate from Miami Northwestern Senior High next Thursday.
Miami-Dade’s School Board recently created a policy to ensure that the families of deceased students are able to get posthumous diplomas. Schools have conferred the diplomas in the past, but activist Tangela Sears, who started the local support group Parents of Murdered Kids, advocated for a district-wide policy to make it easier for families to honor their loved ones.
“It’s a bittersweet thing for a mother having to sit there knowing that she prepared her child for this moment and now the child is not here,” she said. “It’s bittersweet to have it, but it’s painful to not be able to watch your child receive this. There are a lot of emotions.”
It’s also a difficult day for the classmates of the students who have been killed. At Booker T. High’s graduation, class president Jefton Gibson took a moment during his speech to talk about Richard’s absence. But in a way, Richard was still there. His mother created a foundation in his name and gave $500 scholarships to 10 graduating seniors to help them pay for college textbooks.