Assistant Principal Denise Reed stood at the entrance to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s campus in Parkland on Friday and welcomed teachers and staff back for the first time since a gunman killed 17 and wounded 15 on Valentine’s Day.
“It’s great to see your smiling faces,” she said, leaning into the driver’s window of an arriving staffer.
Teachers maneuvered their vehicles through a heavy police presence, orange cones blocking off parts of the road, and a swarm of TV trucks and cameras.
“Good morning! Love you guys,” Reed told a car full of teachers.
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“Glad to see you, honey,” she told a teacher driving in.
The school’s flags were at half-staff, and the parking lot was still full of bicycles left behind in a panic last week as students fled on foot.
Two golden retrievers wearing blue service vests could be seen entering the building — therapy dogs for the teachers.
Jeffrey Foster, an Advanced Placement government teacher, said the “vast majority” of his colleagues showed up at school in what was a surreal few hours. He did more hugging than normal, he said, and some teachers could be seen lying on the floor petting the therapy dogs.
Stepping back inside his classroom, Foster said it seemed frozen in time. His video projector was still plugged in, and papers littered his desk. Before a fire alarm jolted his students out of class last Wednesday, and a former student began gunning people down in classrooms and hallways, Foster and his class had been talking about special interest groups and their vice grip on American politics, including gun control.
“It was our last day before the unit test,” he said.
Foster said he and his colleagues spoke about revelations that the school’s resource officer, Scot Peterson, did not go inside the building during the gunman’s rampage. Broward Sheriff Scott Israel announced the news Thursday.
“He should probably move out of the state as soon as possible,” Foster said, adding that he understood Peterson’s apprehension but that he could have saved lives.
During a press conference held in front of the school as teachers headed home, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said he was outraged about the Peterson revelation.
“It’s inexcusable. There’s no other word to describe what we heard yesterday,” he said. “I wish he had the same kind of courage that our teachers who showed up here today had.”
As teachers and staff arrived Friday morning, members of the community occasionally stopped by to drop off fresh flowers or offer a prayer at the memorial that has formed at the campus.
Nicole Henry, a 33-year-old recent widow who lives in the area, said she took her three toddlers to drop off a bouquet of purple flowers.
“I know the past six months we’ve been uplifted by prayer,” she said. “So we wanted to come pray for them.”
The chain-link fence surrounding the campus was adorned with flowers, balloons, stuffed animals and posters with messages ranging from mournful to inspirational.
New signs, including one listing the names of the victims under the date of the massacre and a heading that read, “We Will Never Forget,” and another with the school’s logo and the phrase “We Shall Overcome,” have appeared on the fence around the faculty and staff parking lot.
The entrance to the parking lot was guarded by law enforcement officers who checked teacher IDs before allowing them in for what was scheduled as a planning day.
Students are invited back to campus during a three-hour open house on Sunday afternoon. Classes resume Wednesday with an abbreviated schedule for students through the end of next week.
When students return, classes that been meeting in the building where the shooting occurred will be shuffled to other buildings and other classrooms, but they’ll remain with the same teachers and classmates. If students don’t feel comfortable returning to the scene of the deadliest U.S. high school shooting on record, officials said they will help students transfer to another school in the county.
Maintenance workers have been power-washing, painting and replacing doors and windows to get the campus back in shape. Students and teachers were allowed to return to gather their personal belongings on Saturday and Sunday.
Broward Sheriff Scott Israel announced plans earlier in the week to arm school resource officers with rifles, which Runcie said he fully supports as a temporary step-up of security measures, although he did ask Israel to “step it back” in the elementary schools.
“It’s interim,” he said. “It’s a recognition we don’t want to see any copycat incidents occur.”
Jason Friedlander started the morning at IHOP with fellow members of the social studies department. Restaurant staffers paid for the meal and gave the grieving teachers free tumblers, before they headed to Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
It was great to see most of the staff back, he said, all having breakfast in the cafeteria and interacting with the therapy dogs.
The principal gave them a pep talk and answered questions, but overall the day was casual, Friedlander said.
The real planning takes place next week as teachers work out the details of room assignments and classes, but members of the social studies department have already started volunteering to cover the classes of one of the victims, Scott Beigel.
Friedlander said he’s going to swap out his planning period for one of Beigel’s freshman geography classes.
It’s all part of a team effort to bring things back to normal and show how resilient and strong the Marjory Stoneman Douglas community is, he said.
“As a whole, we’re a solid community,” Friedlander said. “We serve the community we live in and we hope to keep doing that as effectively as we can.”