SANTA FE, Texas -- In the sweltering twilight on their school's football field, 328 seniors at a Southeast Texas high school received their diplomas Friday with memories of afresh in their minds. The Santa Fe High School seniors gathered in the 83-degree heat and 76 percent humidity on the artificial-turf field to become the school's first to graduate since two substitute teachers and eight fellow students died in a mass shooting May 18.
The graduating seniors, wearing white stoles in tribute to, and their well-wishers viewed a montage tribute to the slain students and teachers on the stadium's video display board. Speeches by school principal Rachel Blundell, valedictorian Corrigan Garcia and salutatorian Bailee Dobson referred to "the events of May 18."
Blundell reassured the seniors that surviving such a trial equips them with the strength and courage to cope with the challenges that will come later in life. "Great leaders and great nations have emerged out of the ashes of some of the greatest tragedies," she said.
Garcia told his classmates that the shared experience only brought them closer and brought them the strength that unity brings.
"We've made it through the worst of it," he said in his valedictory speech. But he said that another foe confronted the graduates, the emotions of trauma and loss that could be overwhelming.
"Moving on will be tough. Nothing will ever be the same for any of us. But we all have a choice to make," he said.
"It's been a bit of a wild ride," Dobson said in her speech. "This year has been one of the most bizarre and life-changing years that we've had so far. First we had (Hurricane) Harvey, then we had snow, and most recently we had the tragic events of May 18th that happened in our very school."
But she said her classmates had remained strong "through all the challenges that life has thrown at us."
The ceremony came a day after 43-page report that also included suggesting more mental health screening for students.of the victims and others near Houston. And it came several days after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recommended dozens of strategies to make schools safer in the wake of the deadly shooting, including increasing the presence of law enforcement officers at schools. The Republican and staunch gun-rights supporter released a
A handful of the recommendations involved gun safety in Texas -- a state thatand has more than 1.2 million people licensed to carry handguns. Abbott said funding for some of the recommendations will be aided by federal grants, though others require state lawmakers to weigh in.
"We all share a common bond: And that is we want action to prevent another shooting like what happened at Santa Fe High School," Abbott, who is campaigning for re-election, said during a news conference Wednesday at Dallas school district headquarters.
He also said he wants to arm teachers and put requirements on parents to keep guns away from children 17 and younger. And he recommended a law to remove students who threaten teachers or students, CBS Dallas/Fort Worth reports. He also recommended $20 million to expand the "Twitter Program" and "I Watch Texas" app for students to report people, according to the station.
"Texas will expand a program that uses mental health screenings to identify students at risk of committing violence, and then connects them with professionals for counseling. It is used currently at 10 independent school districts with great success," Abbott said.
He was quick to remind that his stance on the Second Amendment remains unwavering. "I can assure you I will never allow Second Amendment rights to be infringed," Abbott said. "But, I will always promote responsible gun ownership. That includes keeping guns safe, and keeping them out of the hands of criminals."
A 17-year-old student identified as the shooter is being held on capital murder charges.