Parkland, Fla. – Students and teachers hugged and cried Wednesday as they returned under heavy police guard to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High for the first time since a teenager with an assault rifle killed 17 people and thrust the huge Florida school into the center of a renewed national gun debate.

The half-day began with fourth period so that the nearly 3,300 students could first be with the people they were with during the shooting two weeks ago.

“In the beginning, everyone was super serious, but then everyone cheered up and it started being the same vibes we had before the shooting. People started laughing and joking around,” said Kyle Kashuv, a junior who said he hugged every single teacher.

On the way in, teens were guarded by hundreds of police officers. The police were accompanied by comfort animals, including dogs, horses and a donkey. One of the horses had “eagle pride” painted on its side. A nearby woman held a sign offering “free kisses.”

After school dismissed, members of the Guardian Angels wearing their trademark red berets lined the streets at a crosswalk.

Kashuv said he was amazed by the outpouring of support from the community, including the police presence, the animals and many well-wishers. There were letters from all over the world and “banners on every single wall,” he said.

Some of the officers carried military-style rifles, and Superintendent Robert Runcie said the police presence would continue for the remainder of the school year. The heavy arms rattled some students.

“This is a picture of education in fear in this country.” The National Rifle Association “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 student movement to restrict assault weapons.

About 150 grief counselors were on campus “to provide a lot of love, a lot of understanding” and to help students “ease back” into their school routines, Runcie said.

The freshman building where the Feb. 14 massacre took place remained cordoned off.

Students were told leave their backpacks at home. Principal Ty Thomas tweeted that the school’s focus would be on “emotional readiness and comfort, not curriculum.”

In each classroom, colored pencils, coloring books, stress balls and toys were available to help students cope.

“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 not afraid to be return, “just nervous.”

Many students said the debate over new gun laws helped them process the traumatic event and prepared them to return.

State lawmakers continued their investigation of how the suspected shooter, Nikolas Cruz, managed to slip through local law enforcement despite previous warning signs.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said he hopes a gun and school-safety bill is passed before the annual legislative session ends March 9.


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