Barbara Ojago saw her grandson’s first day back at school as the beginning of the end.
Her grandson, Emea, will finish his senior year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. But Emea returns to a school forever changed by a former student he personally knew as someone who pelted him with a water bottle in the cafeteria. That student later committed the deadliest school shooting in Florida history.
Ojago knew him by his first name.
“Nik had a lot of problems,” said Ojago, 75, of Coral Springs, referring to school shooter Nikolas Cruz. “We knew him very well. We complained about him.”
Emea came by bus Wednesday morning, greeted with a large media staging and even larger police presence. A helicopter hovered above.
Ojago came by foot in her burgundy MSDSTRONG shirt to show her support, she said. She woke up crying.
“I was hoping we could get through this with not a lot of notoriety,” she said. “Our children are very strong. We pray with them all summer, all year.”
But the doubled police presence on campus reassured her that Emea will be safe.
“This is his senior year and he’s going to get through this,” she said. “He wants to go ahead and get this over with.”
Emea joined 271,000 students who came back to school across Broward County on Wednesday for the first day of the 2018-19 year. Students at Stoneman Douglas wore burgundy lanyards to display their school IDs. District spokeswoman Tracy Clark said the incoming freshman class is expected to be larger than the graduating class.
Addressing a media gaggle across the street from the school, Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie said enforcing heightened security measures is paramount.
“It’s a bittersweet day,” he said. “It’s six months away from the tragedy when it feels like it happened just yesterday.”
Runcie said the school doubled its armed police presence and installed new surveillance systems and automatically locking classroom doors. He said social workers, counselors and therapy dogs are available on campus for students.
Public schools in Florida are now required to have an armed school safety officer to fend off an active shooter. Broward, which has a hybrid of school resource officers and trained armed guardians, called the guardian program “definitely a work in progress.”
Runcie said the district has 10 armed guardians, down from 17 previously reported, and had to turn to municipalities and the Broward Sheriff’s Office to use officers on overtime to cover every school.
Students had mixed feelings about the media and police presence.
“I wasn’t here over the summer, I was in Brazil,” said senior Pedro Alves, 17. “I’m tired. Coming here, everybody’s here every time. I feel safe at school.
“It’s different with all these cameras. It’s like really nervous,” said sophomore Rousseau Geffrard, 16. “After the event happened ... I didn’t really feel like traumatized anymore. I felt more safe with all this type of new securities,” he said.
Wyndham Lakes parent Claudette Robinson wasn’t as relaxed. She let her daughter, Alyssa, start at Stoneman Douglas as a freshman even though she’d rather her be at Pompano Beach High.
“I went to orientation and I just sat there and bawled,” said Robinson, 54. “My husband and I, our hearts are tearing out. I still don’t feel like the security, everything is up to par. I don’t feel that way. I’m not confident.”
Robinson said she took the day off from work because she was nervous for her daughter.
“I was just saying yesterday I don’t know if we made the right decision,” she said. “I just have to trust in the Lord and hope and pray we made the right decision.”