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Students return to Marjory Douglas High: ‘We’re not going to be broken’

It was the first step back toward normalcy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, even if so little about the day seemed normal.

Students returned Wednesday morning — two weeks after a shooting that claimed 17 lives — by walking through a human tunnel formed by officers from throughout Broward County, who handed out thousands of carnations.

>> Photos: Students return to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

The first bell, at 7:40 a.m., was followed by 17 seconds of silence.

Throughout the campus, 150 counselors awaited. And if they weren’t what the students needed for comfort, perhaps 40 therapy dogs were.

Each period began with an announcement from Principal Ty Thompson, reminding students they must be there for each other. Whether those reminders were even necessary was debatable.

>> Maddy Wilford was shot 3 times at Douglas; ‘She’s a fighter,’ mom says

“Principal Thompson over the announcements today said that he’s keeping everyone who works in the school and all the students — we’re all going to be family,” said Connor Dietrich, a junior.

“We’re together. I’ve made friends through this tragic experience that I’m going to have for the rest of my life. All of us are there for each other.”

MSDStrong isn’t just a hashtag. It’s 3,123 students — only 170 shy of normal — who returned to the scene of the most traumatic hours of their lives. Robert Runcie, Broward’s superintendent of schools, said only 15 students and four employees have inquired about transferring out of Douglas since the massacre.

“Today was a major milestone for us,” Runcie said. “We took a major step in the recovery process.”

Caesar Figueroa did. His daughter, Gabriella, is a junior at Douglas. It wasn’t until Sunday that she detailed for her parents just how harrowing her experience was, starting the moment she heard strange sounds while in a stairwell.

“She ran up the stairs,” he said. “First classroom, she’s banging on the door. It was code red already. The teacher wouldn’t let her in. The second door, she ran in. This teacher, Mrs. (Kathryn) Gilliam, she let her in.”

>>RELATED: Douglas students, Pulse survivors join forces, head to Tally

Until a few days ago, Figueroa had never heard of Kathryn Gilliam. How does a father thank a teacher for such an act? If that father is Figueroa, he was waiting across Coral Springs Drive for the 11:40 a.m. bell that ended this aborted school day. In his hands were a bouquet of flowers and a card with Gilliam’s name on it. Inside were $50 gift cards from Starbucks and Olive Garden.

“I want to personally thank her,” he said. “I don’t know what she likes. Hopefully Starbucks or Olive Garden.”

Students were told not to bother bringing textbooks and backpacks. This was a day for reflection, not instruction.

“It was all just coming together, just letting people know we were there for each other, keeping very relaxed and making sure we didn’t set people off because a lot of us are suffering with flashbacks and it makes a lot of us really jumpy,” Dietrich said.

Students were asked not to bring balloons to school to avoid the possibility of any popping.

The other day, Gabriella Figueroa was at McDonald’s when a car with a loud muffler approached.

“My daughter jumped,” Caesar Figueroa said. “She thought it was a gun and she started crying.”

>>MASS SHOOTING: Complete coverage of the Parkland massacre

Hearing this, Becky Graham, his neighbor, shared how her son Ryan, a freshman, had an unusual request the evening of Feb. 14, hours after the shooting.

“That night we just had to make sure the doors were all locked, that no one came in,” she said. “Safe.”

And Wednesday morning?

“This morning it was hard to send him off,” she said. “Like sending him off to preschool for the first time.”

She knew it would be OK when she saw the teachers welcoming her son.

“They saw my son, they said, ‘This is not handshakes. These are hugs now,’ ” Graham said. “We’re all bonded.”

Scores of neighbors and well-wishers lined the entrance to the school with a virtual farm of support animals: Horses with “Eagles Pride” painted on their sides. Dogs of every shape and size. Freshman Ashley Chai-Onn jumped out of the car she’d been riding in to pet a support donkey who started to nibble on her purse.

“We did feed them breakfast this morning,” the donkey’s owner told her.

Every smile — any smile — was a step in the right direction.

“I’m just glad that we’re trying to get it back together and show that we’re not going to be broken from these events,” Chai-Onn said. “We’re going to grow. We’re going to learn and we’re going to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”

That’s the unrelenting goal of Andrew Pollack, who lost his daughter, Meadow, a senior, in the shooting. As he greeted arriving students, he couldn’t help but notice approximately 300 officers. Officers lined the entire east perimeter of the campus.

“I’m happy to see all the support, all the police out here showing support for the kids,” Pollack said. “I’m focused, on a mission. I’m going to be in Tallahassee Friday and Saturday to make sure this bill (to protect schools) gets passed. The whole state of Florida needs to focus on getting this bill passed to make sure this never happens again.”

RELATED: Scott holds Parkland shooting meetings; House rejects assault gun ban

Pollack said he had been speaking to an officer Tuesday who asked for his business card.

“I go, ‘I don’t have a card. What should I have on the card? The murdered kid’s parent?’ ” Pollack said. “And he goes, ‘No. You know what your card should be? It should be the last one.’ That’s my mission — I’m the last one.”

Ryan Petty lost his daughter, 14-year-old freshman Alaina, in the massacre, yet he too stood on Coral Ridge Drive as the sun rose.

“It’s difficult for them to come back to this place where they know some of their friends died and there was such trauma and such tragedy,” Petty said. “However, I think it’s good that they’re here together. I think the healing starts when they get together and they get to talk about what happened and they get to share memories of their friends who aren’t joining them today.”

Ben Galper, a freshman, took classes in Building 12, where the shooting occurred. Upon arriving, he instinctively walked toward the building before realizing it was fenced.

“It feels really weird,” he said. “That’s when it really hit me, when I realized what happened here.”

Dietrich said the toughest part of the day was the 17 seconds of silence.

“It gave us a lot of time to think about who we lost, the fact we’re not going to get to see them anymore,” he said.

>>RELATED: ‘Beauty out of chaos:’ Parkland grieves together after mass shooting

Runcie said the turnout was “great.” He said Douglas will continue to have extra counselors and therapy dogs on hand. Although there won’t be a few hundred officers greeting students every morning, there will be additional security for the rest of the school year, he said. And he made a pitch for the state legislature to help provide resources because “every school in the state deserves enhanced security.”

He, Thompson and the rest of the Douglas community can only hope Wednesday is indicative of what’s to come this school year.

“It felt almost like a family reunion,” Runcie said.

Staff writer Jorge Milian contributed to this story.

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