Heavy police presence as Florida high school reopens after shooting ‘is a portrait of education in fear’
Crowds, including dozens of police officers, surrounded Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Wednesday to support students as they returned to the place where 17 people were massacred two weeks ago.
About 3,000 pupils, many carrying white flowers, wove through hundreds of uniformed police and crowds of supportive locals to get to class. Some of the officers gave students high-fives as the passed.
But David Hogg, who has become a leading voice in the students’ movement to control assault weapons, said that the heavy police presence was “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,” he said, of the officers’ weapons.
“I know one of those bullets could be shredding through me if I was misidentified as a school shooter.”
Jeannine Gittens, 44, and Nia Hills, 47, drove to Douglas ahead of the bus their sons rode in to be there for their arrival.
“We just wanted to make sure they know we are there and that they have our support,” said Gittens, who said her son Jevon, a 16-year-old junior, and his friend had ridden the bus “to make today feel as normal as possible.”
Nicholas Rodrigues, 15, a freshman who lives in Coral Springs with his parents and two sisters, said he walked the mile to school on Wednesday rather than ride his bicycle because “wanted to think about things”.
School buses arrived soon after 7am, with several hundred police officers on hand to escort students, who wore the school’s colours of burgundy and white, to make them feel safe.
Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jamie was killed in the massacre, said he was not afraid for his surviving son, also a student at Douglas, because it is now the safest school in America.
“But [it’s] bittersweet because my son walks in here without his sister,” Guttenberg told CNN on Wednesday.
“This is not what we envisioned for ourselves watching our kids go through high school.”
But some students were more positive.
Bruna Oliveira, a 14-year-old freshman who saw her favorite teacher shot in the chest, has spent the last two weeks in counseling.
But on Wednesday morning she said she was eager to be among students who would understand what she had been through.
“I’m excited. I want to see my friends and my teachers,” said Bruna, who was wearing a maroon Stoneman Douglas High T-shirt and matching trainers.
And Casey Sherman, a 17-year-old junior, said she thought the schedule was a good idea so kids can “get it over with,” and not worry about it all day.
Sherman had been up until 11.30pm working on preparations for the March 14 national school walkout against gun violence. Shee 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.”
State legislators are considering a bill that would pay to demolish Building 12, widely known as the freshman building, and replace it with a memorial to the victims of the February 14 massacre.
Principal Ty Thompson said in a tweet to students that the classes - which will only run for half-days this week - will focus on on the students’ emotional needs.
“Looking forward to tomorrow Eagles!” he tweeted. “Remember our focus is on emotional readiness and comfort not curriculum: so there is no need for backpacks. Come ready to start the healing process and #RECLAIMTHENEST”
Teenage survivors of the carnage have launched an extraordinary student-led campaign to lobby lawmakers on Capitol Hill and the statehouse in Tallahassee for new restrictions on firearms.
But many express deep trepidation about returning to the scene of a shooting rampage that ranks as the second-deadliest act of gun violence at an American public school.
“It’s just really hard to think about,” Hogg, told NBC News on Tuesday. “Imagine getting in a plane crash and having to get back on the same plane again and again and again and being expected to learn and act like nothing’s wrong.”
A former Stoneman Douglas student, Nikolas Cruz, 19, who authorities say was expelled last year for unspecified disciplinary problems and had numerous run-ins in the law, has been charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder.
As surviving students faced a daunting return to the hallways and classrooms where classmates and teachers died, Cruz was due back in court on Wednesday for a hearing to determine whether he has the assets to pay for his own defence. His mother died in November.
He is accused of carrying out the shooting rampage with a semi-automatic AR-15-style assault weapon that he legally bought from a licensed gun dealer last year, when he was 18 years of age.
Besides reigniting a national debate between advocates of tougher firearms restrictions and proponents of gun rights enshrined in the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, the shooting as raised questions about the role of law enforcement in events leading up to the massacre.
The Broward County Sheriff’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have faced criticism that they failed to properly follow through on multiple tips warning that Cruz had the potential and capacity for deadly violence.
Sheriff Scott Israel has come under heavy criticism after disclosing that one of his armed deputies, assigned as the school resource officer, stayed outside the building while it was under attack rather than make entry to confront the gunman. The deputy later resigned rather than face disciplinary action, Israel said.
The sheriff has acknowledged his office is examining reports from a neighbouring police department that three more deputies who were present took cover outside the building with guns drawn rather than go into the school immediately.
Israel, a Democrat first elected sheriff in 2012, has said calls for his removal by a group of 74 Republican state lawmakers is politically motivated and he has no intention of stepping down.
On Tuesday in Tallahassee, the state capital, the House Appropriations Committee voted to raise the minimum legal age for purchasing all rifles to 21 from 18 and impose a three-day waiting period for any gun purchases.
Buyers of handguns must already be at least 21 and submit to a three-day wait.
The measure also would create a statewide programme to arm specially trained teachers – subject to school district approval – while assigning more police as school resource officers and allowing police to confiscate weapons from people who are involuntarily committed as a danger to themselves or others.
In addition, the measure would outlaw the sale of bump stocks, devices that enable semi-automatic rifles to be operated as fully automatic machine guns.
The panel rejected a Democratic-backed amendment to ban assault-style weapons, like the one used by the gunman in the Florida school attack.
The package now must win approval in the full Republican-controlled legislature before it goes to Governor Rick Scott, also a Republican, for his signature.