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Graduation at 1 Washington, D.C., high school means tearful goodbyes for slain classmates
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Graduation is usually a happy time for U.S. high school seniors.
At Washington's Ballou Senior High School, however, the normally celebratory mood is marked by sadness this spring.
Clad in their caps and gowns, students are bowing their heads in tribute to eight classmates who were either shot or stabbed to death this school year.
For Ballou officials, the spring is proving tough, too.
"Some of the students that we've lost I've only known for a short period of time," said Principal Art Bridges. "But we had a student named Teddy Garvin ... I had known him for three and a half years. He was in the band. He and I, on two or three occasions, had an opportunity to talk. It was like losing a son."
Homicide stalks teen population
Ballou's student body, in fact, is no stranger to violence.
Over the past decade, five to seven Ballou students have been murdered each year. The killings were not on school grounds as was last year's Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado, but the cumulative impact is severe.
"When I was younger, I always thought, you know, 'I'm not scared of death,'" said student Tre Aunda Stover. "So I always thought I would lead a happy, beautiful life. But now you have to worry about, you know, will I make it past 18? I turn 18 on December 29th of this year, and I have to worry about, will I make it to 18? And if I don't make it, will I die from a gunshot wound or a stab wound?"
While the murder rate among adults and juveniles has been sliding nationally in recent years, homicide remains a chronic problem in some poorer, urban communities, many of which are plagued by drugs.
Nationally, 5,291 juveniles ages 17 and younger were killed from 1996 through 1998.
In school communities such as Ballou, that adds up to a steady stream of funerals for the very young.
Students ready to move on
Some Ballou students say they've cried so much they've run out of tears. Some also are more fearful of what's happening around them.
"It's not like I'm paranoid," Stover said. "But it's like I'm always watching, you know, just watching."
A model student, Stover is considering whether to attend Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, or Tennessee State University in Nashville, Tennessee.
She said faith in God and a desire to pursue a higher education were her motivations in school. But now Stover and 129 other graduating Ballou seniors are ready to focus on more than just surviving.
They're eager to move on to life after high school.
"When I have that cap and gown on, I mean, I just want the diploma," she said. "I'm sorry, but it's the truth. I want the diploma. You can have everything else. I want the diploma."
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