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Perry Hall High School reopens with resolve and emotion

Perry Hall High School

Returning to school a little shaken, some students walked in clusters behind their parents, while others went arm-in-arm. A few even took their parents' hands, as though they needed the same reassurance they had received in elementary school.

At the front flagpole, the band kids, the football players and the chorus members melded together to pray for both the "sweet and kind" victim and the alleged assailant in the shooting at Perry Hall High School.

Students came back Tuesday searching for ways to continue to heal a community they say has been drawn closer by the shooting inside their school. However, some students have begun to ponder what might have been done to help 15-year-old Robert Gladden, who they said had been bullied — perhaps even moments before police say he opened fire Monday in the cafeteria.

The decision to open school just 24 hours after Monday's shooting was important, said Principal George A. Roberts, because he wanted "to begin the healing process and to move beyond yesterday."

He believed having counselors close by and teachers available to talk to students would be positive, and he said most students yearn at a time of crisis for some semblance of normalcy.

But that normalcy seemed tentative. Students said they arrived nervous about the day ahead. Signs reading "Pray 4 Daniel" were placed on the school lawn and few teenagers were laughing.

In a morning filled with emotion and quiet tears, many wore T-shirts that read "Pray for Daniel," to support 17-year-old Daniel Borowy, the student who was shot in the cafeteria and remains in serious condition at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

"He is the sweetest child on our street," Kim Huesman, an alumna whose son is a senior, said of her neighbor. "I have known him since he was an infant."

Three friends trekked toward school under a large umbrella, all wearing identical neon green shirts with hand printing that said, "Pray for Daniel."

Brenna Jago, 15, said she had hoped that wearing the shirt would help bring the school together. On one side of hers she had written "Gator Nation," in a nod to the school's mascot. The incident has united the student body, she said.

"Our whole school has been brought together," she said. "We are a family. I feel people have more respect for each other."

Perry Hall is a suburban community, with many young families involved in sports and activities with their children, but it is also includes rural areas such as Kingsville, where Gladden lives, said Erik Dressell, a church member who works with students.

Like many communities in Baltimore County, it is still a place where people grow up and stay. The guidance counselor who is credited with tackling Gladden during the incident was a graduate of the high school.

So it took only a Facebook message initiated by students to bring hundreds of students, alums, parents and youth pastors to the flagpole for the morning vigil. Some people came from nearby neighborhoods, and though they were not directly affected by the incident, they felt a sense of belonging and mourned for the larger community.

"It is really nice to see that they are gathered together saying a prayer," said Christina Coronado-Harris, whose husband graduated from the school and whose child will someday go there.

Still, students said they were worried that more could have been done to prevent the violence.

Some students said they believed that Gladden had been bullied and that could have led, in part, to the shooting.

Sophomore Carson Riggins said that he knew Gladden as a loner who made plain that he didn't want to have contact with other people. "He must have been bullied really badly, to be pushed that far," he said.

And Imaris Reyes, 15, said those students who treated him badly must be feeling guilty. Despite his black clothes and long hair, Gladden did not stick out at a school as diverse as Perry Hall, she said, adding, "I think to other people he looked normal. I think the only thing that threw people off was that he had hair in his face."

Her friend, Melisa Akcam, 15, who was in the cafeteria at the time of the shooting, said, "I just feel like everyone should think about other people's feelings."

Dan Albion, one of a number of youth ministers who came to the vigil, said he was the victim of teasing in high school. He has discussed with students how important it is to recognize that small actions can have an impact on others. "I think this is a huge eye-opener for them," he said.

While some students said they were glad to return, Reyes said that many were posting on social media about how unsettled they felt. "There was an aura of people just not wanting to be there," she said after the school day was over.

But Huesman, who was at the prayer vigil, was not apprehensive. "This is a good school with a good faculty and this tragedy could have happened anywhere," she said. "These kids all joined together and want to be there for each other."

Senior Brittany Melchior said she felt safer with Tuesday's increased police presence.

Senior Rachel Grueninger praised the emergency drills that schools regularly hold. "We have emergency drills all the time and we all think those are a pain," she said. "Now I am grateful everybody knew what to do."

Both seniors said they felt tremendous support Monday from family and community.

"I had people who didn't even know me asking if I was OK," Melchior said. "I am really glad we returned to classes today. One kid wanted to mess things up for all of us. But he didn't succeed."

Alex Nowak, a senior, said he was most worried about the ninth-graders whose only feeling about the school right now was fear. He said he wanted to "reach out to freshmen to make sure they are OK and they don't want to transfer."

Robert Roane, a minister and 1984 alumnus, said he returned to the campus Tuesday to pray with the Perry Hall High family.

"We are blessed that no life was lost," he said. "We need to pray for the victim and for the boy who did the shooting. He needs forgiveness."

mhare@baltsun.com

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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