by Elizabeth A. Harris via nytimes.com
The auditorium in the northwest Bronx was speckled with balloons. Balloons that said, “Congrats Grad!” and “You’re so special!” Balloons arranged on stage in columns of white, blue and yellow. Balloons in the shape of champagne bottles. And a parade of shiny floating letters that spelled out “Graduate of 2017.” Nearly 60 teenagers accepted diplomas from Bronx Preparatory High School there on Monday, amid all the usual trappings of a graduation ceremony. But for three men in their 40s who joined the teenagers onstage, wearing the same blue academic robes, the day was no less meaningful.
They were Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana Jr., three members of the Central Park Five. Years ago, they missed the graduation ceremonies for their own high schools because they were in prison for a crime they did not commit.On Monday, they received honorary diplomas and the capped, gowned feting they had been denied. “Even though we were not able to go back and right the wrong of not getting our high school diplomas outside, here we are being honored in such a way in front of our family and friends,” Mr. Salaam said from the stage, smiling broadly. “This is a blessing.”
The Central Park Five was a group of teenagers convicted of the brutal rape in 1989 of a woman who was jogging in Central Park. They refused plea bargains, insisting that incriminating statements they had made to the authorities had been coerced, and spent from seven to 13 years in prison. More than a decade after their conviction, the five men, all of whom are black or Hispanic, were exonerated. DNA evidence confirmed that the crime had been committed by another man, Matias Reyes, who confessed to acting alone.
The five have since reached settlements with New York City and the state totaling nearly $45 million, according to their lawyer. The youngest was 14 at the time of their arrest. The oldest was 16. A documentary about their ordeal called “The Central Park Five” was released in 2012, and a government teacher at Bronx Prep, Marielle Colucci, has used the movie as a tool to teach students about the justice system. This year, after her students asked if they could meet the men, Mr. Richardson spoke to their class.“The most important thing for me as a teacher is that they leave here knowing their rights and what they actually mean, and there is no one better to speak to that than these guys,”
Ms. Colucci said of her students, who are all members of minorities. “Because they could find themselves in that same situation right now when they walk out across the street.”Cassius Gil, the school’s assistant principal, said he had a conversation with Emmanuel George, the school’s executive director, after Mr. Richardson’s visit. Mr. Gil said they wondered: “Did they ever get a high school diploma? We should give them a high school diploma.”In fact, the three men did already have diplomas — each received a G.E.D., and then an associate degree, while still in prison. But they never had a ceremony, and a piece of paper in the mail is not the same.“It’s kind of emotional,” Mr. Santana said at the ceremony, which was at Lehman College in the Bronx.
To read full article, go to: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/26/nyregion/central-park-jogger-case-honorary-diplomas.html?_r=2