Bronx Prep Charter High School graduated 50 seniors at the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts last week. But a lot of the attention focused on three special guests seated on stage with school officials.
It even prompted a chant: “Central Park Five!” “Central Park Five!” “Central Park Five!”
The three were Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana, dressed in graduation gowns and finally doing what was denied to them nearly three decades ago: A chance to actually have a high school graduation ceremony.
Richardson, Salaam and Santana were part of the so-called Central Park Five. They, along with two others, were wrongfully convicted of raping a female jogger in Manhattan’s Central Park in 1989 while all of them were still teenagers. Their prison sentences ranged from five to 10 years.
They were exonerated in 2002 after all of them had served their time in prison. There was no DNA evidence linking the five to the attack, and a convicted rapist and murderer confessed to the crime.
“It was definitely an honor to receive such a blessing, especially since we never had the opportunity to have a proper graduation,” Santana, now in his early 40s, said.
Although the men have GED certification, Bronx Prep awarded the three honorary diplomas recognizing the perseverance each showed during their difficult times.
It follows the school’s mission of educating students for college success and civic engagement.
The legal case first came to the attention of “scholars,” as the school calls its students, through Marielle Colucci, Bronx Prep’s senior government and economics teacher. Her class examined what it meant to understand legal rights as well as learn more about documents like the U.S. Constitution.
Part of the course also centered false confessions and juvenile cases. Colucci recalled reading about the Central Park Five case as a teenager and thought the story would be timely for her class.
“My kids were just so amazed,” she said. “They hear about these things going on every day, but they couldn’t believe how young (they) were.”
After seeing the Ken Burns documentary “Central Park Five,” the students asked Colucci about meeting the exonerated men. She reached them through the Innocence Project, and Richardson — who was 14 when the crime was committed — came to meet with the class.
The Innocence Project works to clear the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and other investigative techniques all while working to reform the criminal justice system.
Richardson shared with the students about his time in prison, how he was coerced into falsely confessing, and how none of the Central Park Five knew of their legal rights.
Later, in a meeting with Colucci, assistant principal Cassius Gil and school executive director Emmanuel George, George recalled Richardson saying he had never received his high school diploma.
That sparked an idea. George, a Riverdale resident, suggested the school give the men honorary diplomas. He thought Richardson’s inspirational message of perseverance and positive outlook aligned with the school’s message for its demographic — predominately students of color.
“We have a cultural responsibility to teach our scholars what‘s in the curriculum and what’s outside of the curriculum, and what’s outside that can apply to their lives,” George said. “I was also extremely happy to see the men being honored for their courage and their bravery.”
Gil, who grew up and still resides in Riverdale, said the Central Park Five case is still “completely current and relevant.” During the original 1990 court case and long before he was president, Donald Trump said disparaging things of the five teenagers, and doesn’t appear to accept their exonerations today, Gil said.
In 2015-16, more than 87 percent of Bronx Prep students graduated high school in four years, according to the city’s education department. That’s ahead of the borough-wide rate of 66 percent, and better than 73 percent citywide.
Richardson, Santana and Salaam have set an example the students at Bronx Prep can learn from, George said.
“They are leaving a forgiving school, but they are going to an unforgiving world in a lot of cases,” he said. “Things will happen in their lives that may be deemed unfair. But, if they stick with it, they move forward and move ahead, the best results will happen.”