Ceremony honors legacy of slain CHS student

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Canton High School Resource Officer Det. Chip Yeaton shows the plaque honoring Shaun Ouillette to Shaun’s sister, Yvonne, and mother, Jeanne Quinn. Veterans Agent Tony Andreotti is also pictured. (Tanya Willow photo)

It was a morning of solemn reflection but also one of redemption and hope as a small group of community leaders gathered at St. Mary’s Cemetery last Thursday to honor the life and legacy of Shaun Ouillette, the young man who was brutally murdered by a fellow Canton High School classmate 26 years ago.

Held on a crisp and cloudy fall morning just up the road from where Shaun and his family once lived, the long overdue ceremony was understated yet heartfelt, combining poetry and song with a series of brief remarks — most of which were addressed directly to Shaun’s mother, Jeanne Quinn, and sister, Yvonne, who had flown in from out of state to attend the morning’s events.

Serving as master of ceremonies was CPD Deputy Chief Helena Findlen, one of four individuals who had been instrumental in planning the tribute along with Police Chief Ken Berkowitz, who was unable to attend due to a sudden death in his family, Canton Citizen publisher Beth Erickson, and Canton Veterans Agent Tony Andreotti. All four had grown close to Quinn in recent years and wanted to do their part to ensure her son’s legacy would forever be preserved.

For Andreotti, that meant procuring a granite memorial stone, paid for out of the veterans’ fund thanks to a generous donation from the American Legion Riders, who raised over $6,000 during their second annual Tony Andreotti Charity Motorcycle Run in September. Andreotti graciously thanked the riders, some of whom were in attendance on Thursday, and he also thanked Quinn, a veteran of the Vietnam War, for her service to the country.

The memorial stone depicted the words “forever young” over a fresh-faced image of Shaun, serving as a stark reminder of the innocence lost on that November day in 1986, when a classmate and presumed friend of his, Rod Matthews, lured him into the woods and viciously beat him to death with a baseball bat for no apparent reason.

Memorial stone for Shaun Ouillette (click to enlarge)

“Twenty-six years ago when Shaun died,” recalled Erickson, “I had two sons, one older and one younger, and I remember every day reading and crying about Shaun. How could I ever, ever repay his mother, his sister, his family? I would do anything to make them feel better, and then five years ago Jeanne came into my life and since then there’s been many people in this town who have tried to make this day happen.”

Following her brief remarks, Erickson recited a poem that Quinn had written years earlier, entitled “If I Could Turn Back Time.” In it, Quinn dreams about bringing Shaun home again for “maybe just an hour,” yet she ultimately realizes that “I am only me, and all that’s past and future is only for God to see.”

In confronting the tragic events of the past, however, the ceremony also focused on the meaning of Ouillette’s life and the impact he has had and will continue to have on future generations of Canton residents.

CHS Principal Derek Folan, who is brand-new to the town, nevertheless asked to be a part of the event and assured both mother and daughter that Shaun — and the entire family — would always be a part of the community and would always be welcome.

“Due to his tragic death, Shaun did not have the gift of years, but he will forever be a gift to his family and this community,” Folan said. “He reminds us of the importance of goodness, kindness, and sense of adventure that is present in all of our students … he reminds us of the importance to be good to one another, to stand by and stand up for one another, and to create a culture in our school that is safe, welcoming, unified and respectful.”

“We are one,” Folan continued. “We have no tolerance for bullying, hatred or disrespect. Schools need to be a safe place and for all students, and we have made great strides in this area. Shaun’s memory guides our work and our school community is better for it.”

Accompanying Folan to the cemetery, in addition to Superintendent Jeff Granatino and members of the CHS chorus, were four student leaders who spoke to Quinn and Yvonne about the improving culture at CHS and the very successful Boomerang Project — a mentoring program that pairs student “link leaders” with incoming freshmen and transfer students.

Heather Keir, who, like Shaun, transferred to CHS and struggled to adjust in her first year at the school, described the Boomerang Project as her “guiding light.” “It is a program that accepts you,” she said. “There are people that walk with you in the hallways, that can tell you what class you’re going to, how to get there. They become your friends. They make sure that you’re comfortable and that you’re doing well in school.”

Andrew Burkowsky touched on the connection that one feels within the school by being involved in the Boomerang Project. “Every day I see kids that I know that I’ve talked to and I’ve made a difference, even though we run in completely different circles,” he said. “I’m a senior and they’re a freshman, or I play sports and they do plays. It’s amazing to see the type of things and the type of people you can meet when you just reach out.”

Following the student speeches, the family was given another surprise when Findlen, reading the speech that Berkowitz had prepared, formally dedicated the Canton Police Department’s School Resource Officer Program in honor of Shaun.

“From this day forward, this program will be formally entitled the Shaun Ouillette School Resource Officer Program,” said Findlen, as she called forth the current SRO, Detective Chip Yeaton, to read the plaque that will hang in his office for all to see.

The plaque refers to the “lasting impression” that Shaun left on his family, friends, and classmates. “May this office, the Shaun Ouillette School Resource Officer Program, be a constant beacon for any student who is in need of support.”

In his speech, the chief detailed the impact that Shaun’s tragic death had on the creation of the SRO program in Canton. He noted how the program was initially funded by a federal grant, and to obtain the grant the department had to compose a compelling narrative that spoke to the need for such a program.

CPD Officer Mike Lank, a classmate of Ouillette’s, hugs Jeanne Quinn

“We told Shaun’s story,” said Berkowitz. “We detailed how it may have been prevented if we had only had more proactive programs in place.”

“Out of this awful evil came something good and positive and life changing,” added the chief. “It has truly made a difference in the lives of many youngsters who are trying to navigate through those very precious but difficult teenage years.”

After the ceremony, both Quinn and Yvonne touched upon the SRO dedication and how much it meant to them even after all these years away from Canton.

“I’m overwhelmed,” said Quinn. “I’m flabbergasted. To think that not one child will walk through those doors without being recognized and helped because of Shaun. It’s all I ever wanted, for this not to happen again.”

“I was surprised,” added Yvonne. “I’m very pleased with it and with everybody involved.”

Yvonne was also particularly pleased to hear from the students and to learn that there are programs in place to combat bullying and to help new students adjust. She recalled how tough it was for Shaun to adjust and how she too was bullied after transferring to the school from the Mass. Hospital School.

“What an awesome thing for these [current] kids to do. What a lesson in life,” noted Quinn. “It’s like being on a sinking ship and having to get into the life boat and how do I get in without falling? And there’s hands — because it’s at Canton High — outstretched to help you in.”

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