Empty seats, missing names as Florida shooting survivors return to school

Students walking to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as they attend classes for the first time since the shooting.
Students walking to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as they attend classes for the first time since the shooting.PHOTO: AFP
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was set to reopen its doors for a half-day schedule on Feb 28, 2018.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was set to reopen its doors for a half-day schedule on Feb 28, 2018.PHOTO: AFP
Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie said there was an attendance rate of 95 per cent on the first day back to school since the school shooting on Feb 14 that left 17 people dead in Parkland, Florida.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida (REUTERS) - Survivors of the second-deadliest US public school shooting were brought to tears on Wednesday(Feb 28) by empty seats and missing names at roll call as they returned to their Florida high school two weeks after 17 students and educators were massacred there.

Upon emerging from a half-day of classes intended to ease their return after the tragedy, some of the roughly 3,000 teens who attend Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, described their emotional day.

Samuel Safaite, a 15-year-old sophomore, said students in his Spanish class broke down when the teacher took attendance and read out the name of Luke Hoyer, a 15-year-old slain in the attack.

“A lot of people started crying because we all knew he was gone,” Safaite said. “It was difficult for a lot of people.”

Many of the students carried white flowers when they arrived at the school in the morning and wove through hundreds of uniformed police officers providing security for their return. Emotional-support dogs also were on hand to provide comfort.

Nikolas Cruz, 19, who had been kicked out of the school for disciplinary reasons, is accused of carrying out the rampage.

The shooting inflamed the nation’s long-running debate on gun rights as defined in the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. It also sparked a youth-led gun control movement featuring survivors of the attack, who have already lobbied lawmakers in Florida’s capital Tallahassee and Washington, DC.

“We will push for change and our children are going to be the change agents,” said Jeannine Gittens, 44, who drove to the school to be there to meet her son Jevon, a 16-year-old junior, when he arrived on the bus. “We see that things have to change and we are not going to stop until they do.”

The building where most of the victims died was closed, surrounded by a chain-link fence decorated with signs reading “MSD strong” and “Pray for Douglas.”

Florida lawmakers are contemplating tearing it down and replacing it with a memorial to the victims.

HARD TO MOVE ON

As she left the school with her mother and 18-year-old brother, sophomore Marisa Lopez, 16, said some friends were talking about leaving the school.

“I don’t think that some people are ready to move on,” Lopez said, adding that some of her friends had witnessed the shooting of Scott Beigel, a 35-year-old social science teacher who was one of the three adults killed in the attack.

“I just don’t know if some of them are ever going to get over it.” Investigators say Cruz used a legally purchased AR-15 assault-style rifle in the attack.

The debate over how to respond to the school shootings pulled in corporate America, with gun retailer Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc on Wednesday saying it would no longer sell assault-style rifles, the type of weapon used in four of the five deadliest mass shootings by a single gunman in US history, as well as Parkland.

The Republican leaders of the US Congress on Tuesday rejected new limits on guns after the attack. The powerful National Rifle Association lobbied forcefully against any restrictions on gun sales, saying they infringe on the rights of law-abiding citizens.

As school shootings become a growing concern, police in Georgia on Wednesday arrested a high school teacher who barricaded himself inside a classroom and fired a handgun when the principal tried to force the door open.

President Donald Trump has suggested arming teachers and reopening mental hospitals as a way of combating school violence. Trump is scheduled to meet with a group of 17 senators and representatives from both parties on Wednesday for a discussion on background checks and other proposals.

Following the shooting, several large American companies said they were ending programs that offered discounts or benefits to NRA members. Some have faced blowback, particularly in Georgia where a lawmaker said he would try to stop lucrative tax benefits for Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines after it cut ties with the group.

Sporting goods retailer Dick’s said it was banning sales of guns at its stores to anyone under 21 and no longer selling high-capacity ammunition magazines.

Dick’s had removed assault-style weapons from its stores after the 2012 massacre of 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, but later brought them back.