By Agence France-Presse
With tears, fears and defiance, students made an emotional return Wednesday to their Florida high school where a former classmate went on a shooting rampage two weeks ago, killing 17 people.
Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland were greeted by heavy security and scores of well-wishers as they returned to classes.
Dozens of police officers lined the sidewalks saying “Good morning” to each child, retired officers passed out flowers. Former students, neighbors and their children held banners reading “We Love You,” “You’ve Got This” and “We Are With You.”
“It’s all a little overwhelming,” said one 17-year-old student named William, who shared a classroom with two of the young victims, Nicholas Dworet and Meadow Pollack.
“It was just sad to go back there and not have my friends who were in the class with me anymore.”
Likewise, for Kimberly Miller, the first day back meant confronting the absence of her geography teacher, 35-year-old Scott Beigel.
Beigel was one of three staff killed, along with 14 teenagers, when former student Nikolas Cruz entered the school on Valentine’s Day and opened fire with an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle.
“It’s pretty upsetting,” said Miller. “But it was also refreshing to talk to everyone because people don’t really understand how it feels, no matter how much they try to understand.”
“You’re at home and they try to empathize with you, but you come here and everyone else experienced it — it’s kind of a relief because they can just relate,” said the 14-year-old.
While there were few open displays of grief, many students looked somber, speaking in hushed tones with their eyes downcast.
Jonathan Abramchaev, 15, said it was “very emotional” to see his school again — and that the first day back was largely spent working through those emotions.
“Seeing all the flowers by the gate, that really hurt me,” he told AFP. “Today we were just discussing and talking out our feelings.”
– ‘What happens when they go?’ –
Some said they felt reassured — if a little unsettled — by the heavy police presence.
“I’m not scared,” said Stoneman Douglas junior Sean Cummings. “I feel like it’s more protected than any other school at this point.
“But it’s still weird to see everybody here and all these police officers,” said the 16-year-old.
But others — like senior Carly Novell — said they were nervous to return.
“I’m really scared to go in,” said Novell, who like many others wore a maroon T-shirt, the school colors.
A 15-year-old named Alan said the shooting left him fearful — even with his school under close watch by police.
“What if this happens again, you know?” he said. “What happens when they go? In a couple of days or weeks when it gets back to normal? It may happen again.”
‘I can take down buildings’
Since the shooting, Stoneman Douglas students have been lobbying politicians for stricter gun controls both in their home state of Florida and in Washington.
Republican lawmakers, with majorities in the US Congress and the Florida state legislature, have been cool on bringing in major reforms on the sales of firearms.
Pressure however is growing on businesses.
On Wednesday, Dick’s Sporting Goods, a large chain store, announced it would immediately stop selling assault-style rifles and would not sell guns to anyone under the age of 21.
Dick’s CEO Edward Stack said Cruz had purchased a shotgun at one of his stores in November and although it wasn’t the gun used in the shooting, the chain would no longer sell semi-automatic weapons.
“Our view was if the kids can be brave enough to organize like this, we can be brave enough to take them out of here,” Stack said.
Speaking on CNN, Broward County school superintendent Robert Runcie said grief counselors were on hand for the day.
“We’re going to provide as much support as we can,” Runcie said. “We understand it is extremely difficult for our kids today.
“We believe our kids are ready,” he said. “Students are excited. As a family, they’re going to pull through it.”
Andrew Pollack, the father of 18-year-old victim Meadow, turned out to show his support for increased security in schools.
Accompanied by his therapy dog Sunny, Pollack said he was determined to be the “face of the last father of a murdered kid.”
“When someone murders your kid, shoots her nine times… it’s not courage,” Pollack said. “I have a flame in me right now. Nobody can stop me. I can take down buildings.
“We need to make it that every kid in America, when he goes into a classroom, he knows he’s safe,” he said.