PARKLAND, Fla. (CBSNewYork/AP) — 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.
But seeing officers carrying military-style rifles had the opposite effect on some students.
“This is a picture of education in fear in this country. The NRA 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 students’ movement to control assault weapons. “I know one of those bullets could be shredding through me if I was misidentified as a school shooter,” Hogg added.
Grief counselors were on campus as well “to provide a lot of love, a lot of understanding” and help students “ease back” into their school routines, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said. Officers with therapy dogs also stood outside.
Runcie said about 95 percent of the student body of 3,293 returned. He called the attendance “outstanding.”
“It felt almost like a family reunion,” he said.
Runcie said he would use the words “flexible, support and love” to describe what’s happening at the school this week.
A heavy law enforcement presence will be at the school for the remainder of the year.
Just 15 students and four of 215 employees have inquired about transferring to other schools.
“I’m nervous, but I’m just happy to see everyone come together and support each other,” one student said.
Volunteers passed out cookies and brownies to students. Backpacks were not allowed.
“I can’t imagine the bravery it took to walk in there today. Our prayers are with them,” supporter Debbie Richard said.
“You are all going to be great today. It’s the safety school in America,” another said.
Fred Guttenberg had encouraging words for students. His 14-year-old daughter Jamie was killed in the shooting.
“My daughter, she’s the strongest person I knew. She really was,” he said. “I just feel like I’m on a mission. No parent should have to go through this again.”
The freshman building where the massacre took place remains cordoned off, and the school superintendent says administrators are considering tearing it down.
Casey Sherman, a 17-year-old junior, thinks the schedule was a good idea so kids can “get it over with,” and not worry about it all day. Up until 11:30 p.m. working on preparations for the March 14 national school walkout against gun violence, she said she’s not afraid to be returning, “just nervous.”
“We did go through a tragedy,” said Sherman, who walked in holding hands with her boyfriend. “It was terrible but if you let it stop you … it’s not how you go down, it’s how you get back up.”
“It was emotional, because one of the victims I had two classes with. So I guess it was, you know, as well as it could be,” said another student.
But the return wasn’t easy for everyone.
“When I was there, I felt like I was choking, like I was having an asthma attack,” Alfonso Calderon said. “It was very difficult to grapple with everything.”
“It is just weird to go to school and everywhere you look there is a police officer of a service dog, and it’s just uncomfortable,” said another student.
Samantha Fuentes, who survived multiple gunshot wounds, has chosen not to return. She says she will finish her senior year with online courses and focus on spreading a message for tougher gun laws and heightened security measures in schools.
“I want to be a part of Stoneman Douglas. I want to live out the rest of my high school career normally. But there’s no such thing as normal anymore,” she said.
A long line of cars circled the school and dozens of television trucks and vehicles were camped out nearby as students, parents and staff were ushered through a security cordon, past a “Welcome Eagles” banner and a walkway lined with flowers, photographs and other memorials. Some were returning despite severe gun wounds, but even those who weren’t hit by bullets spoke of emotional trauma.
Alexis Grogan, a 15-year-old sophomore, planned to wear a Stoneman Douglas color — maroon — on the first day back to class plus sneakers that say “MSD Strong, be positive, be passionate, be proud to be an eagle” and “2/14/18” in honor of those who died.
She feels nervous, like it might be too soon to go on as usual without slain friends like Luke Hoyer, who sat two seats behind her in Spanish. Still, the support from her fellow students, and their fight to strengthen gun control laws have buoyed her spirits.
“I am so proud of how the kids at my school have been fighting because we all want change to happen and, as we see the progression, it really shows us that people do care and they do hear what we have to say,” Grogan said in a text message.
The pain resonated with President Trump, who met with a bipartisan group of lawmakers at the White House Wednesday to discuss how to stop mass shootings at schools. Trump wants to strengthen the background check system and raise the minimum age for buying assault weapons to 21.
“You can buy a handgun, you can’t buy one. You have to wait until you’re 21,” Trump said. “You can buy the kind of weapon used in the school shooting at 18. I think it’s something you have to think about.”
The president said he’ll sign an executive order banning bump stocks — the controversial accessory which turns semi-automatic weapons automatic.
Meanwhile, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced it will immediately end sales of assault-style rifles in its stores and won’t sell guns to anyone under 21 years old. Dick’s Chairman and CEO Edward Stack said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Wednesday that after the Florida shooting, the company “felt it needed to do something.”
The victims’ relatives kept up the pressure in Florida’s capital Tuesday, with emotional testimony during a legislative hearing on a bill to raise the age limit to buy long guns from 18 to 21, and create a program allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons in their classrooms, if their school district allows it, they get law-enforcement training and are deputized by the local sheriff’s office.
The Broward superintendent has spoken out firmly against the idea of arming teachers. Hogg also thinks the idea is misguided.
The House Appropriations Committee’s 23-6 vote in favor of the bill Tuesday followed more than four hours of emotional discussion with the parents of some of the 17 killed, and nearly two weeks of activism by students on social media and in televised debates.
Gov. Rick Scott, who met with officials in Miami-Dade County on Tuesday, said at a news conference that he hopes a gun and school-safety bill is passed before Florida’s annual legislative session ends on March 9. He had proposed measures that overlap with the Legislature’s plan but did not include arming teachers. However, he declined to say Tuesday whether he would veto the sweeping package if it included that provision.
The Senate’s version of the school-safety bill was approved by a second committee on a 13-7 vote Tuesday evening. Sen. Bill Galvano, who is designated to become the next Senate president and is ushering through the bill, said the earliest it will be considered by the full Senate is Friday.
Marion Hammer, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association and Unified Sportsmen of Florida, told the House Appropriations Committee that she supports tightening school security and keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, but not the House bill’s gun-ownership restrictions, which she later said would not have stopped the Parkland shooting.
“Part of what we need to do is make people understand that guns are not the problem,” she said after the hearing. “So passing more laws dealing with guns as a solution to a problem that exists within the enforcement of laws is just kind of silly.”
Max Schachter, father of 14-year-old victim Alex Schachter, said the bill the House committee eventually approved doesn’t go far enough — but could have saved his son.
“If we would have had these measures in place, I would not have had to bury my son next to his mother a week and a half ago. … I’m pleading for your help. I’m willing to compromise. Are you?” he asked.
CBS News has learned that after suspected gunman Nikolas Cruz fired throughout the first and second floors of the freshman building, investigators say he continued to make his was to a third floor stairwell where he attempted to create a sniper’s nest by shooting out a glass window, firing 16 rounds. They say his intention was to target staff and students running out, but hurricane-proof glass stopped the windows from shattering and as Cruz tried to reload, his gun may have jammed.
Meanwhile, the Uber driver who picked Cruz up and brought him to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on the afternoon of the massacre told CBS Miami he appeared calm and quiet.
“Just a normal person,” she said. “I didn’t see anything strange or something like that, no.”
She said Cruz climbed into the backseat carrying a big object.
“I saw him with a backpack which I thought was a guitar case. He told me I am going to my music class,” she said.
Some parents of the victims, like Andrew Pollack who lost his 18-year-old daughter Meadow in the attack, have been appealing to lawmakers for gun reform.
“I want to be the last father of a murdered kid ever in this country,” he said.
Investigators say Cruz still had 180 rounds of unused ammunition when he left the scene. Gov. Scott is now proposing that bullet-proof glass windows should be installed in school buildings across the state.
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)