Just as they had on Valentine’s Day, the children of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High streamed through the gates of their school, ready for classes. Only today, there were 17 fewer of them.
Grief counsellors, therapy dogs and — out of sight — deputies armed with AR-15 assault rifles, the same weapon used by a former student to shoot dead 14 students and three teachers two weeks ago, were on hand to ease pupils back for the first time since horror struck their school.
“Remember our focus is on emotional readiness and comfort, not curriculum, so there is no need for backpacks,” Ty Thompson, the school principal, told students — known as Eagles — on the eve of their return.
“Come ready to start the healing process and reclaim the nest,” he said.
Police and sheriff’s deputies lined the roads outside the school in Parkland, Florida, in a show of support. Mounted police lined up on horses.
Local residents came out to offer hugs.
Some students drove themselves to school, parked and walked in arm-in-arm with friends. Others were dropped off by teary-eyed parents, some of whom vowed to stay outside all morning until their children’s return.
Fred Guttenberg used to say goodbye to two children each morning, but watched as just one walked back in with his friends. His daughter Jaime, 14, was shot fatally in the back while running down a school hallway to flee the gunman; his son Jesse, 17, escaped.
“It’s bittersweet seeing my son go back, but my daughter isn’t going back and that’s not something that’s easy to wake up to,” Mr Guttenberg said outside, standing across from Building 12, the three-storey block where the massacre occurred.
The building is now ringed by a fence that has been slung with hundreds of banners sent from students at other schools, signed by tens of thousands of students and bearing messages of support. An ocean of flowers covers the grass verges outside the school, centred around 17 wooden crosses marked with the victims’ names.
Ironically, Mr Guttenberg now longer has to worry about school security.
“It’s the safest school in America right now,” he said. “But it’s still the scene of where my daughter unfortunately was murdered and it’s hard to connect those dots and feel OK.”
Andrew Pollack’s 18-year-old daughter, Meadow, had “a smile like sunshine” that he misses every day. “Every second of my life is difficult now she’s gone, so coming back here actually helps. I like seeing the kids go to school, being kids that are alive and moving and getting back to learning,” he said.
Since the massacre, he has not joined the survivors’ calls for gun reform and an assault weapons ban, focusing instead on moves to strengthen school safety — a message that he articulated personally at a “listening session” with President Donald Trump at the White House a week ago.
“Kids should be studying, they should be with their books and their friends, having a laugh, enjoying a drink, getting an education, that’s what I was doing when I was their age, not worrying about anyone coming to shoot them. The safety thing is what we need to be doing, the adults,” he said.
David Clemente, a volunteer with the Guardian Angel vigilante group, stood outside the school in his distinctive red uniform, striking a tough arms-crossed pose. As he tried to speak, however, tears came.
“Seeing this gets me choked up. The Guardian Angels have been going through this cycle of shootings and memorials for years. For years,” he said. “You’ll see me out here every day for the whole school year. I don’t get paid for this, but I’ll be here. This is what it takes to raise a village.”
Frank DeAngelis, who was principal at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, in which 12 students and a teacher were killed, spoke with Mr Thompson before yesterday’s reopening to offer advice. Do not have balloons around the school to welcome students back because if they pop, children will be diving for cover, he told him, and have plenty of substitutes on hand, ready to step in when teachers break down.
He has been asked many times “When does it get back to normal?” He responds: “It never gets back to normal.”