PARKLAND, Fla. — It was time to go back. Back into the high school where they had seen their teachers and classmates gunned down. Where friends from marching band or English class had been killed. Where they had cowered in closets, counted gunshots and wondered if they were going to die.
Thousands of students and parents poured into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Sunday afternoon, for the first time since the mass shooting at the school on Feb. 14. They walked past police cruisers and memorial flowers to gather the backpacks and books they had left behind as they fled, and to take their first steps toward resuming classes on a campus now indelibly linked to America’s wrenching cultural battle over gun laws and how to stop mass shootings.
That debate largely stayed outside Sunday. Inside Stoneman Douglas High, students said, they mostly just hugged.
They hugged friends they hadn’t seen since the shooting, and they hugged friends who had been with them every day. They hugged their teachers, and friends’ parents, and classmates they barely knew, while their parents hugged other parents. They wore T-shirts that said “Douglas Strong” and “Parkland United,” and displayed hair they had dyed to honor Joaquin or a new tattoo to remember Gina.
As students and teachers reunited inside Stoneman Douglas, Briana Valli, 17, said that one refrain from the past week — Are you doing OK? — was giving way to another: We’re glad you’re here.
“It actually felt good to be in the building,” she said. “We’re all going through this together.”
The gathering Sunday was the beginning of what Broward County school officials have called a “phased reopening” of the school where 17 students and staff members were killed. Teachers and the rest of the staff will return to work Monday and Tuesday; the students will come back for classes starting Wednesday.
Initially, the school day will last only until 11:40 a.m., and many students said they expected to do little else on those first few days besides discuss the shooting; gun control; mental health issues; and the long, complicated path toward healing that lies ahead for them, their families and their town.
How do you pick up with English projects and science lessons, students wondered, when the study partners who helped you make Romeo and Juliet masks and write an essay on climate change are dead?
“They’re just not there,” said Lourdes Konwufine, 15.
Leah Ronkin, 16, said she went to the drama room where she had hidden in a closet during the massacre. She retrieved her backpack, her lunchbox and a white teddy bear her boyfriend had given her for Valentine’s Day.
“It’s like the first day of school,” she said, “but it’s not normal at all.”
Some students said that they dreaded returning, and that wandering around Stoneman Douglas again Sunday felt surreal. Their school was now a place filled with grief counselors, comfort dogs, and posters of sympathy and solidarity from high schools across the country.
The three-story freshman building, where most of the bloodshed occurred, remained fenced off and closed, and it will not reopen for classes. School officials, parents and students have called for it to be demolished, with a memorial built in its place.
Some students said they felt happy to be back, and were buoyed by the support of their friends. Others said the echoes of that day were inescapable.
“It makes you feel kind of empty inside,” said Ryan Senatore, 15. “Walking back in where 17 lives passed — it’s a disgusting feeling. It’s never going to be the same. Never.”
Ryan LoFurno, 16, went into a physics classroom to get his backpack and car keys. His parents walked in with him, and said they were struck to be standing where their son had hidden in a corner as gunfire exploded in the next building.
“This is where he was,” said Ryan’s mother, Denise. “He was closer than I thought.”
“A lot closer,” said his father, Anthony.
Several parents said Sunday that they were not worried about sending their children back to Stoneman Douglas, which is now ringed by official vehicles. But as they walked into the school, some said they were growing angrier over reports that have raised questions about the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, including how its officers responded to the shooting and how earlier warnings about the suspected gunman were handled.
Sheriff Scott Israel defended his actions as “amazing leadership” Sunday during a tense interview broadcast on CNN. The sheriff, a Democrat who won re-election to the post easily in 2016, said he would not resign, despite growing criticism of his deputies’ actions.
In Parkland, several students said they had to steel themselves to re-enter the school Sunday. They spoke of feeling panicky and queasy, and of asking parents and older siblings to accompany them.
Tyjanai Thomas, 15, said that she had seen her freshman geography teacher gunned down, and that she was focusing on staying calm. On the sidewalk outside, she held tight to a pearl pendant that hung on a silver chain around her neck — a gift from her godmother, she said. She wondered whether she could handle three more years in this place. Sunday would be the first test.
“At some point, we’ve got to face reality,” she said.
And then she walked back into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.