About 50 uniformed police officers marched into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., early Wednesday as classes resumed for the first time since 17 students and teachers were killed by an expelled classmate with an AR-15, thrusting them into the centre of the nation’s gun debate.

Grief counsellors are on campus as well “to provide a lot of love, a lot of understanding” and help students “ease back” into their school routines, Broward Schools Supt. Robert Runcie said.

A long line of cars circled the school, and dozens of television trucks and vehicles were camped out nearby as students, parents and staff were ushered through a security cordon.

A banner “Welcome Back Eagles” sign covers the main entrance, and the walkway leading onto the campus was lined with flowers, photographs and other memorials to the those killed. Some of the students were returning despite severe gun wounds, but even those who weren’t hit by bullets spoke of emotional trauma.

Alexis Grogan, a 15-year-old sophomore, planned to wear a Stoneman Douglas colour — maroon — on the first day back to class Wednesday, plus sneakers that say “MSD Strong, be positive, be passionate, be proud to be an eagle” and “2/14/18” in honour of those who died.

She felt nervous, like it might be too soon to go on as usual without slain friends like Luke Hoyer, who sat two seats behind her in Spanish class. Still, the support from her fellow students and their fight to strengthen gun control laws have buoyed her spirits.

“I am so proud of how the kids at my school have been fighting because we all want change to happen and, as we see the progression, it really shows us that people do care and they do hear what we have to say,” Grogan said in a text message.

Florida high school shooting survivor returns to school4:49

The students return to school after a whirlwind of political activism that has reignited the gun and school-safety debate.

Douglas sophomore Charlotte Dixon said some of her friends are having a hard time returning to classes. But like Grogan, they are encouraged by the attention to gun laws their actions have brought.

“I’m so glad that people are stepping forward and talking about keeping it relevant … because it shouldn’t happen to anyone ever again,” Dixon said.

Gun control debated

On Tuesday, relatives of the Stoneman Douglas victims kept up the pressure in Florida’s capital with emotional testimony during a legislative hearing to discuss passing a bill that would, among other things, raise the age limit to buy long guns from 18 to 21.

The bill also would create a program that allows teachers who receive law-enforcement training and are deputized by the local sheriff’s office to carry concealed weapons in the classroom, if also approved by the school district. The school’s superintendent has spoken out firmly against that measure.

‘There is this sort of looming thought that someone will try to perform another shooting but I’m sure our school will be riddled with security.’
– Sidney Fischer, student

The House appropriations committee’s 23-6 vote in favour of the bill Tuesday followed more than four hours of emotional discussion with the parents of some of the 17 killed, and nearly two weeks of activism by students on social media and in televised debates.

Gov. Rick Scott, who met with officials in Miami-Dade County on Tuesday, said at a news conference that he hopes a gun and school-safety bill is passed before Florida’s annual legislative session ends on March 9. He had proposed measures that overlap with the legislature’s plan but did not include arming teachers. However, he declined to say Tuesday whether he would veto the sweeping package if it included that provision.

‘School will never be the same’

Outside the school on Tuesday, people tied poems to the chain-link fence surrounding the school, and dropped off red, heart-shaped balloons. The building where the shooting occurred was cordoned off, and people signed photographs of the fallen.

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Broward County Sheriff officers welcome Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School staff and teachers on Tuesday as they prepare for the return of students. (Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images)

Sidney Fischer, 17, was in a Holocaust history class when the shooter aimed his gun at the window and shot into the room. Two students in his classroom died. He’s planning to wear swim goggles on his first day back Wednesday to honour his friend Nicholas Dworet, who was an accomplished swimmer.

“Obviously our school will never be the same, but I think once we get back into our normal routine people will shift back into a comfortable state,” Fischer said.

He’s planning to ride to school with a friend — just like they did before the shooting.

“I’m actually not too scared of going back tomorrow,” he said. “There is this sort of looming thought that someone will try to perform another shooting but I’m sure our school will be riddled with security.”

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