The student body of 3,300 were greeted by a phalanx of police officers, some heavily armed. There were homemade signs with hopeful messages, piles of bouquets and therapy dogs waiting for the kids as they arrived for a half day at the Parkland high school.
After classes Wednesday, the teenagers came to the Sun Sentinel’s studio for a Facebook Live talk with Opinion Editor Rosemary O’Hara. The kids have coped with mourning the Feb. 14 massacre by becoming activists, and say they won’t give up until they can have safe schools and stop future shootings with their #NeverAgain movement.
Sophomore Sari Kaufman, 15, said returning to school was “overwhelming,” and described how in math class, students placed flowers on a fallen classmate’s empty desk.
She said that because there have not yet been changes to gun laws, the large presence of law enforcement made entering the wounded campus feel less scary.
Kaufman lost a good friend in the shooting.
David Hogg, a 17-year-old senior, was angry that his hoped for fortifications of the school, including bulletproof windows and new classroom door locks, were not yet made. He said that left kids as vulnerable as they were before the shooting.
He also described feeling sad for the loss of so many classmates and teachers.
“Seeing all those signs helped me get through the day,” Hogg said. “And the [therapy] dogs were pretty cool, too … It’s rough. It’s something that will never make school the same again.”
Ellie Branson, 16, a junior at South Broward High School in Hollywood who is also active in the #NeverAgain movement, joined the discussion.
Though it seems the Parkland massacre may be getting more media coverage than past shootings, “I think it’s just as important as all the other shootings,” Branson said. “I can’t believe it’s taking this long for people to actually be doing something about it.”
The trio wants to see universal background checks of gun buyers, raising the age to buy guns from 18 and not letting those who are mentally ill or have violent pasts buy assault rifles. And they expressed frustration at the influence of the National Rifle Association upon public policy and over some elected officials.
“We’re not trying to take your guns,” Hogg said, adding that he believes in the Second Amendment. “Seventeen people died. This is a nonpartisan issue.”
Branson said it was “necessary” for kids to be able to meet with mental health counselors at school, and lamented government cuts to health care funding.
During their first day back to school, Hogg and Kaufman said not all of their classmates agreed with their goals.
A few classmates said there should not be a ban on assault weapons and argued that there are too many loopholes for gun buyers to avoid scrutiny, Kaufman said.
Despite the presence of school resource officers at their respective high schools, Branson said kids don’t always feel safe, even though she said there have been drills and safety precautions at South Broward.
“It’s just become something that we have to constantly hear about and deal with,” Branson said. “I know that people were not feeling safe going to school. I still don’t feel safe. I feel like there’s not going to be a day for the rest of my life when I don’t think about the 17 people that died in Parkland.”
Still, none of the students wanted to see their teachers bringing guns to school, a recent proposal from President Donald Trump that is part of a proposed law being considered by the Florida legislature.
“Do you think we’re going to feel safe with more guns, more weapons that are going to threaten our lives?” Branson said.
Having an armed teacher who “becomes too aggressive,” Kaufman said, “that takes just away from the innocence from us, that we’re supposed to learn in these type of classrooms.”
They were excited and passionate about the opportunity to make change, and the feeling that they are being heard by fellow students and citizens and those in power.
“This time, for some reason, people are coming together as Americans,” Hogg said. “We’re having a discussion, not a debate.”
He said Twitter is the medium that will keep the #NeverAgain movement going and in touch with its supporters.
“Those 140 characters are characters that can start a revolution, and one we’re starting to see,” Hogg said.
The kids want their peers to participate in marches, including the one planned for March 24 in Washington, D.C. and above all else, to register and vote.
“Don’t be controlled,” Hogg said. “Be a democracy. Make your voice heard.”
Branson said, “You’ll hear more about prom and homecoming, but not about actually voting. Even if you disagree with me, it’s necessary that you actually vote in the election.”
During the conversation, the kids often returned to the tragedy that prompted their campaign.
“They can’t speak up anymore,” Hogg said. “And we have to on their behalf.”
On Thursday at 4:30 p.m., O’Hara will host another Facebook Live session about the shooting with four teachers from Broward County schools. They will discuss whether they should be armed and other aspects of how to keep students and themselves safe in the classroom.
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