By outward appearances, Monday was a typical day at South Florida schools.
Local school district administrators — in the wake of Friday’s mass killing at a Connecticut elementary school — were determined to have an orderly and trouble-free start to the week. In that effort, they succeeded.
“Students return to Miami-Dade County Public Schools for a calm day of learning,” announced a district press release after the school day ended without incident.
But the emotional scars were noticeable among parents, students, and teachers. That inner turmoil will likely continue for some time, as Americans struggle to fully digest what has occurred and search for ways to keep it from ever happening again.
“It was strange this morning; it really was,” said Susan Pignato, a fifth-grade teacher at Forest Hills Elementary in Coral Springs. “When we saw the little ones, we got teary-eyed.”
Pignato said she found herself looking at the classroom restroom and wondering something awful: If a deranged gunman burst in, how many students could she hide in there?
Gabriela Heisel of Miami Beach said she had the urge to hug her three children — ages 3, 4, and 9 — for a bit longer before dropping them off at preschool and elementary school. Just letting them go to school, Heisel said, “felt funny” this time.
“I don’t think that anybody has the same sense of safety anymore,” Heisel said.
Across schools in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, school psychologists and counselors were on hand to speak with students, families and staff. Some teachers worked last week’s tragedy into their lesson plans — for example, Jordan Harris, a 7th grader at Miami’s Ada Merritt K-8 school, was asked to write a journal entry about the shooting in Newtown, Conn..
Jordan said the recent event was on his mind when the school day began.
“I was a little scared,” Jordan said. “Maybe somebody will come to our school and do that same thing.”
Once the school day was over, Jordan said he felt a little relieved. The 13-year-old suggested two possible ways to prevent future bloodshed: improved school security and tougher gun-control laws.
Both of those issues are receiving a wealth of attention from elected officials. In a statement released Monday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott called on school districts to review their emergency procedures and come up with ways to improve student safety. In Broward, there is newfound attention on several years of reductions in the county’s school resource officers — police officers assigned to a particular school.
Broward’s elementary schools, in particular, have significantly fewer SROs than was the case five or six years ago. Forest Hills Elementary, for example, shares its lone SRO with another school, with each school getting the officer for 2 1/2 days a week.
“It never concerned me before, but now I really would like to have her full-time,” Pignato said. “It’s a budget issue.”
Though school security will undoubtedly be heightened in the coming weeks and months, some parents argue the real causes of the Connecticut shooting are societal, and cannot be fixed by transforming schools into fortresses. Some parents want stronger gun laws, while parent Janet Forte of Miami wants the nation to do a better job treating the mentally ill. Forte said a close friend of hers was hospitalized for schizophrenia, but never received steady treatment. Five years ago, that friend disappeared, Forte said.
“If we had better healthcare, we might be able to diagnose the problem sooner and avoid stuff like this more often,” Forte said.