As students arrived at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for the start of the new school year on Wednesday, they found a tall new fence surrounding the perimeter, banners draped along the exterior willing them to be “#MSDStrong,” and a fresh coat of burgundy paint in the hallways.
Each in its own way was an attempt to mark the setting as a place of learning and reassure its occupants of a fortified safety within its walls.
At a news conference held on the school lawn, Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie called it a “bittersweet day.”
“Everyone’s glad to get back and be reunited,” Runcie said, six months and one day after the deadly shooting at the Parkland, Fla., high school.
“But it’s six months away from the tragedy, which feels like it happened just yesterday.”
A former student carried out a mass shooting on Feb. 14, killing 17 students and teachers.
“A lot of emotions going on,” Runcie continued Wednesday. “It’s still a challenging time for many of the students and faculty.”
Sara Cardona, a junior, said it was difficult to be back on campus.
“It’s going to feel weird to not see some kids in our classes that we’re used to seeing,” Cardona said.
It was easier to put both the violence of the rampage and the death of 17 classmates out of her mind over the vacation months “because I feel like during summer, you don’t really see anybody so it’s like OK.”
But being back on campus — near the same classrooms where terrified children hid behind doors and inside closets — is likely to bring back frightening memories for some returning students.
Still, Cardona expressed optimism about the year ahead. “I feel like a lot of people are hopeful and excited for the new year. And I feel like it’s going to be OK,” she said.
Since the end of the last academic year and throughout the summer Broward County Public Schools — the second-largest district in Florida with more than 200 schools — has taken steps to make all of its schools safer. Armed security staff have been assigned to each of its campuses.
“We continue to upgrade our surveillance camera systems at every school in Broward County,” Runcie told reporters.
“We are moving forward and accelerated our single point of entry projects which uses a system of gates, fencing to funnel all visitors to a single point,” he added.
The district is also moving forward with the state-mandated Coach Aaron Feis School Guardian Program, which allows certain school employees to carry guns on campus. And across the district, campuses will be running a “code red drill” during the first two weeks of school, and one each month thereafter.
At Marjory Stoneman Douglas, automatically locking doors have been installed. Instead of one school resource officer there are now at least three armed guards on campus, plus 15 other security monitors.
Plans to add metal detectors have been halted amid concerns over privacy and the logistics of having 3,000 students walk through them every day.
Incoming ninth-grade students will never set foot in the freshman building where the devastating shooting took place. That three-story structure will eventually be torn down. For now, it remains sealed up for evidentiary purposes under order from the State Attorney’s Office. To students and their parents it is reminder of the shooting, surrounded by a 12-foot fence.
The state has set aside $25 million for a replacement, until then students will attend classes in 34 portable classrooms.
But no combination of building upgrades and boost in police presence has been enough to assuage some parents’ anxiety over the perils of gun violence their children face in and out of school.
“They’ve stepped up security and there are measures in place now to hopefully stop it a little bit. But it could have been at a mall, it could have been anywhere,” said Andy Libert, who drove his son Ryan to school Wednesday morning.
“The bottom line is a kid fell through the cracks in the system and he needed help,” he added.
Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed in the massacre, marked the first day of school on Twitter, sharing his son Jesse’s decision to return to the same school as a senior.
“First day of school is not supposed to feel this way. Jaime was always most excited and I am missing her excitement today,” Guttenberg wrote.”I am so proud of @JesseGuttenberg. This year he will park in the senior lot and will have to walk by the building where Jaime was murdered 2 times per day,” he ended.
Runcie announced the district is increasing the number of mental health counselors and behavior specialists and is upgrading its risk assessment teams, who will be charged with identifying students with “challenges.”
“We’ve got to make sure we’re doing the right kind of interventions, that the right kind of supports are there,” Runcie explained.
It’s not just the schools that have changed since the shooting. Many of the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas have now become activists, pushing for gun control and other measures they believe will make schools safer.
Lauren Hogg spent her summer on the March for Our Lives bus tour though Florida and up to New York.
“This whole summer I’ve been joking with my friends while we’re on the bus, there’s three years until I can take a government class. But I’m lobbying in D.C.,” she said.
Hogg said with all of the district’s ramped up security measures, she is not worried about safety at her school. But she said it doesn’t begin to address the problem of gun violence.
“What they did at my school is in a way, putting a Band-Aid on a broken bone,” she said, exasperated. “Sure, it will fix this, but how’s it going to protect my friends go to concerts, who go to clubs, who go to movie theaters, who go anywhere else and are in danger, even some of them just getting to school in inner cities?” she asked.