Students and teachers passed through tight security cordons of dozens of officers as classes resumed Wednesday for the first time since a troubled teenager with an AR-15 killed 17 of their friends and classmates, thrusting them into the center of the nation's gun debate.
The armed police, designed to make Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School feel secure, were accompanied by comfort animals including a donkey and horses. One of the horses had "eagle pride" painted on its side, while a woman held a sign saying "free kisses."
Students began arriving on campus around 7 a.m., about an hour after the first teachers made their way inside the school's gates. Police officers from Broward County and across the state were seen across the area as security remains a top concern.
"I'm very nervous, but at the same time I'm excited to be back in school," said freshman Simon Miller. "While I don't know if it will ever be the same as it was, I think I kind of need to be ready for school and to come to terms with what happened."
About 50 uniformed officers marched into the school, just one aspect of the heavy security as classes resumed for the first time.
"This is a picture of education in fear in this country. The NRA wants more people just like this, with that exact firearm to scare more people and sell more guns," said David Hogg, who has become a leading voice in the students' movement to control assault weapons. "I know one of those bullets could be shredding through me if I was misidentified as a school shooter."
Broward County Schools superintendent Robert Runcie said about 95 percent of the student body of 3,293 returned to the school Wednesday, calling the attendance "outstanding."
Runcie added that there were about 150 counselors at the campus to offer support to staff and students, as well as 40 therapy dogs.
Almost all of the county's high school principals also came to the school Wednesday to support the staff as school reopened for a half-day "modified schedule."
Runcie said he would use the words "flexible, support and love" to describe what's happening at the school this week. He added that a heavy law enforcement presence will be at the school for the remainder of the year.
The superintendent said only about 15 students and four of the 215 employees have inquired about transferring to other schools.
One thing that was seen in abundance Wednesday morning was support: hugs, words of encouragement and a shoulder to lean on for those still trying recover from the tragedy.
"It's rough coming here, but I did it," said Andy Pollack, who lost his 18-year-old daughter Meadow in the shooting. "I'm here to support the kids. It's rough, but everybody feels it. This is a start and we just want to make every school safe now."
Grief counselors were 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 Superintendent Robert Runcie said. Officers with therapy dogs also stood outside.
Students and teachers are on a modified schedule for the remainder of the week, in class from 7:40 a.m. to 11:40 a.m. before returning to a full schedule on Monday. Teachers and staff spent Monday and Tuesday prepping for the return, while students and parents were on campus last Sunday for an orientation.
Casey Sherman, a 17-year-old junior, thinks the schedule was a good idea so kids can "get it over with," and not worry about it all day. Up until 11:30 p.m. working on preparations for the March 14 national school walkout against gun violence, she said she's not afraid to be returning, "just nervous."
"We did go through a tragedy," said Sherman, who walked in holding hands with her boyfriend. "It was terrible but if you let it stop you ... it's not how you go down, it's how you get back up."
The Parkland school’s principal, Ty Thompson, tweeted that the focus of the next three days will be “comfort, not curriculum” while advising students they don’t need to bring backpacks and to come ready to start the healing process, adding the hashtag “#RECLAIMTHENEST” in honor of their mascot, the Eagles.
Volunteers passed out cookies and brownies to students. The students were also greeted by therapy animals including a donkey and two horses. One of the horses had "eagle pride" written on it.
Wednesday's class schedule started with 4th period, so that students and teachers could return to the people they were with during the shooting. The freshman building where the massacre took place remains cordoned off.
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, past a "Welcome Eagles" banner and a walkway lined with flowers, photographs and other memorials. Some 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, had planned to wear a Stoneman Douglas color — maroon — on the first day back to class, plus sneakers that say "MSD Strong, be positive, be passionate, be proud to be an eagle" and "2/14/18" in honor 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. 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.
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.
The House Appropriations Committee's 23-6 vote in favor 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.
Fla. High School Alumni Show Support as Classes Resume
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.
The Senate's version of the school-safety bill was approved by a second committee on a 13-7 vote Tuesday evening. Sen. Bill Galvano, who is designated to become the next Senate president and is ushering through the bill, said the earliest it will be considered by the full Senate is Friday.
Marion Hammer, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association and Unified Sportsmen of Florida, told the House Appropriations Committee that she supports tightening school security and keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, but not the House bill's gun-ownership restrictions, which she later said would not have stopped the Parkland shooting.
"Part of what we need to do is make people understand that guns are not the problem," she said after the hearing. "So passing more laws dealing with guns as a solution to a problem that exists within the enforcement of laws is just kind of silly."
Max Schachter, father of 14-year-old victim Alex Schachter, said the bill the House committee eventually approved doesn't go far enough — but could have saved his son.
"If we would have had these measures in place, I would not have had to bury my son next to his mother a week and a half ago. ... I'm pleading for your help. I'm willing to compromise. Are you?" he asked.
Junior 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 honor 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.