PARKLAND, Fla. – Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students made an emotionally charged return to class Wednesday, many filing in with flowers as they passed numerous police officers and well-wishers lining streets to the school, now forever linked to a nationwide debate over gun laws and mass shootings.
Their return comes exactly two weeks after a former student with known mental health issues used an AR-15 style rifle to kill 17 classmates and faculty members. Dozens more were wounded, as other students and teachers hid in closets and classrooms.
Teachers hope to ease students back into some sort of normalcy, starting with a shortened four-hour class schedule. They began at 7:40 a.m., starting with fourth-period classes — the same period when the shooting happened on the afternoon of February 14.
Samantha Grady, a junior whose best friend was killed in the shooting and was herself injured, said she was hesitant to walk back in.
“But I know I have to … start. I have to face it head-on,” she told CNN outside, about an hour before the school day began.
“I have a lot of feelings about (starting the day in fourth period), because that class was the class where my friend was. … I’m just going to see how I end up dealing with it.”
Another student, Sawyer Garrity, 16, said she was “feeling a lot of things, anxious to say the least.”
“We’re expecting it to be a little crazy because you don’t really know what to expect the first day you get back after something like this,” she said.
“How do you act when something like this happens? There’s no code of conduct, there’s no rule book, no guidelines to follow. We’re all just guessing in the dark here.”
To make the day as normal as can be, she planned to drive herself to school.
‘Really, really sad’
The night before resuming school, Isabela Barry played her guitar to calm her nerves. For her, the thought of going back was reassuring in some ways.
“It’s going to be weird going to all my classes and maybe not seeing people there,” Barry said. “I have a friend who was in one of my classes … and now she’s not gonna be there anymore. It’s gonna be really, really sad.”
Despite the anxiety, she said, it will be comforting to return to the one place where everyone is bound by a similar experience.
“We all had that moment of realization of what truly matters and what’s important,” she said.
To get over her fears, she was having “a virtual sleepover” with her friend Tuesday night. They left their computer cameras on as they slept through the night.
They didn’t want to be alone. Since the shooting, Barry has had trouble sleeping in the dark.
Flowers on empty desks
The students will be walking into a school filled with grief counselors, comfort dogs and reminders of the tragedy all around them. For Hannah Karcinell, one of those reminders will be on the “MSD Strong” shirt she’ll wear.
Karcinell is part of a campus group that has been exchanging messages on how to get through the difficult days ahead.
While they don’t have many answers, she said, the reunion will include lots of hugs.
“We’re all just talking about going back and seeing our teachers and hugging them, just hugging our classmates and just being together with everyone,” she said.
Karcinell said the students who were killed will be on their minds. They plan to place flowers on their empty desks.
‘A little bit of normal’
Broward County officials planned the school’s opening in phases, with teachers and staff returning to work Monday and Tuesday, and classes resuming Wednesday. This week, the classes will be held for four hours, between 7:40 a.m. and 11:40 a.m.
“I’m happy to be going back in a sense because it’s going to be a little bit of normal that we can have again,” said Ashley Paseltiner, 16.
“We’ve all been getting through this together. Just trying to be there for each other. The people you were with in that moment are really the only ones who can fully understand what we went through.”
Building 12, where most of the carnage occurred, remains closed. Some have called for it to be demolished.
A date for razing the building will be decided later. For now, it’s considered a crime scene, said Robert Runcie, superintendent of Broward County Public Schools.
The students’ return will focus on emotional readiness and comfort, not curriculum, so there’s no need for backpacks this week, Principal Ty Thompson said.
Security will be increased when students return to campus, with more officers at the school, he said.
Barry welcomes the added security, but said it might not make much of a difference.
“There’s going to be lots of security, which kinds of feels helpful,” she said. “But I don’t know how helpful it can possibly be because those guns killed my classmates. I don’t think anyone will ever change that feeling of being unsafe on campus.”
Demand for gun reform
Lina Crisostomo’s SATs are coming up soon, but college test preparation has taken a backseat to funerals, vigils and walkouts.
She’s been channeling grief into fighting the gun lobby since the shooting, along with other students at the school. The student-led movement made gains no one predicted. Now, with classes resuming, Crisostomo and others worry about losing momentum.
“Homework doesn’t really seem that important now,” she said last week. “My attention has changed to fighting for these 17 lives.”
With the last day of the state’s legislative session set for March 9, the clock is ticking for lawmakers to make changes following the shooting.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced a $500 million investment in school safety, including metal detectors, bulletproof glass, steel doors and upgraded locks.
In Washington, the push for new regulation and significantly strengthened background checks appeared to lose political momentum.
President Donald Trump is set to meet with lawmakers Wednesday, the White House said.