PARKLAND, Fla. — 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.”
Seeing officers carrying military-style rifles had the opposite effect on some students.
“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.”
Grief counselors 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 Superintendent Robert Runcie said. Officers with therapy dogs also stood outside.
But there was no way around the grim, even frightening images that students and teachers encountered on their first day back. Several students remarked on all the weaponry officers were carrying, and the freshman building where the massacre took place remains cordoned off.
Principal Ty Thomas tweeted that “our focus is on emotional readiness and comfort not curriculum: so there is no need for backpacks.”
And the day’s class schedule began with 4th period, so that teachers and students could first be with the people they were with during the shooting.
“It’s not how you go down — it’s how you get back up,” said Casey Sherman, a 17-year-old junior. She said she was up late working on preparations for the March 14 national school walkout against gun violence, and not afraid to be returning, “just nervous.”
Then she saw all the officers.
“Oh, wow, there are a lot of police,” she said as she pulled up to the entrance. “Oh my goodness, yeah that is a lot.”
Many of the students said the focus of the national debate on new gun laws has helped them process the traumatic event, and prepared them to return to the scene.
Alexis Grogan, a 15-year-old sophomore, was nervous going back — 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. But 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.
Meanwhile, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced it will immediately end sales of assault-style rifles in its stores and won’t sell guns to anyone under 21 years old. Dick’s Chairman and CEO Edward Stack said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that the company “felt it needed to do something.”
The victims’ relatives kept up the pressure in Florida’s capital Tuesday, with emotional testimony before a House committee voted in favor of a bill to raise the age limit to buy long guns from 18 to 21, and create a program allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons in their classrooms, if their school district allows it, they get law-enforcement training and are deputized by the local sheriff’s office.
The Broward superintendent has spoken out firmly against the idea of arming teachers. Hogg also thinks the idea is misguided.
Gov. Rick Scott said he hopes a gun and school-safety bill is passed before Florida’s annual legislative session ends on March 9. The measures he proposed did not include arming teachers, but he declined to say Tuesday whether he would veto a sweeping package if it includes that provision.
A second committee approved the Senate’s version Tuesday night, and Sen. Bill Galvano said the full Senate could vote on it as early as Friday.
Marion Hammer, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association and Unified Sportsmen of Florida, said she supports school security and keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, but “guns are not the problem.”
Max Schachter, father of 14-year-old victim Alex Schachter, the House bill 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,” he said. “I’m pleading for your help. I’m willing to compromise. Are you?”
Associated Press writers Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida, and Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this report.
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