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'I'm never going to be the same': Students set to return to shattered Florida school

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Bruna Oliveira, 14, poses Monday for a portrait in the complex where she lives, in Parkland, Fla. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Matt McClain

PARKLAND, Fla. - When students return Wednesday to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, they will start where they left off: fourth period.

A guidance counselor was explaining this the other day to Bruna Oliveira. That's when the freshman felt the grief well up, her mind floating back to when she was crouched on the classroom floor, praying she would be spared, eyes squeezed shut while her favorite teacher lay wounded.

"My teacher is dead," Bruna told the counselor at a Sunday orientation. "And I don't have a class."

Exactly two weeks after gunfire transformed this tranquil, suburban community into the latest chapter in the American school-shooting saga, students are set to return to the sprawling campus. The massacre that left 17 dead put the campus at the center of a debate over gun violence and many of its students at the forefront of a movement to change firearms laws.

But in the coming weeks, teachers hope to ease students back into the business of learning: graphing polynomials, dissecting Shakespeare, learning the countries of Southeast Asia. For Bruna, that should mean starting with geography class, but her teacher, Scott Beigel, is gone. And Building 12 - which held his classroom - is ringed by a chain-link fence. The Broward County school system is seeking money from the state to demolish the building, to wipe the stain away.

Some students are too traumatized to return and instead plan to transfer schools or continue their education online, from the safety of their homes.

But for those who witnessed the violence and plan to return, heading back is an act of defiance. Some sense danger at random times, even at homes protected by alarm systems and secluded deep within gated communities. Sometimes a sound - the shrill ring of the house phone, for instance - transports them to that terrifying day, and they find themselves shaking. Their challenge is how to carry on - how to absorb lessons about math and science and history - when their teenage brains harbor memories of gunfire and broken glass and the bloodied bodies of friends and teachers.

"I know that I'll never forget what happened, and I know that I'm never going to be the same," said Bruna, who moved to Parkland with her mother from Brazil in 2016. She is a hard-working student and worries her grades will slip. "But I'm trying to make everything like it was before."

Bruna and the 3,300 students of Stoneman Douglas High join a growing roster of people who have survived school shootings, many grappling with injuries or the effects of trauma for the rest of their lives. For the survivors of Building 12, the hulking, three-story building where police say a former classmate decided to open fire on about 550 students, the memories are especially vivid.

An ongoing Washington Post analysis has found that more than 150,000 students attending at least 170 primary or secondary schools have experienced a campus shooting since the 1999 Columbine High massacre. And research has shown that standardized test scores fall among students who remain at schools where there has been a fatal shooting.

Mixed in with the grief is guilt, confusion, anger. The students who have dominated the news cycle say they speak on behalf of classmates too traumatized or fragile to speak, teens who spend their days in group counseling.

The start of school has been accompanied by the return of familiar routines punctuated by reminders of this transformative event. On Saturday, Sarah Lezama, a senior who now sleeps alongside her mother and needs Benadryl to nod off, went shopping for a prom dress. Then, she changed out of her cutoff denim shorts and into a black dress with tiny white flowers to head to the visitation for 14-year-old Martin Duque, the last of the Parkland 17 to be laid to rest. Ryan Gutierrez, a senior, attended Martin's funeral Sunday morning, then swapped black slacks for a soccer uniform in his mother's car to play midfield.

It's a combination of resignation - a feeling that what happened in a city hailed as Florida's safest could happen anywhere - and defiance. Those returning to Stoneman Douglas said leaving would feel like betrayal and a surrendering to the fear that the alleged gunman, Nikolas Cruz, perhaps sought to create.

The parents of Alexandra Geisser, a 16-year-old sophomore, got her into a private school after the shooting. But Alexandra, who spent an hour crammed behind a teacher's desk while bullets flew down the hallway, said she is not quite ready to leave. Like many of her classmates, she startles easily, and when she attended a CNN town hall on gun control, she found herself crouching down to the floor when she heard a rumble.

"Logically, I know I should go" to the private school, Alexandra said as she cuddled a therapy dog near the school's entrance Sunday after she collected a backpack left behind when police rescued her from a classroom. "But there's this guilt, this feeling of solidarity. I feel like I'd be betraying the community."

Joseph DiGilio, a 15-year-old sophomore, said he sometimes wakes up in a panic - "I feel like my gut is twisted" - even though there is little to fear in his home.

He wrestles with guilt and helplessness over his inability to help a classmate who lay wounded in the hallway as Joseph hid in a locked classroom. Without warning, he will be seized with fear and terror.

Joseph has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the same condition that afflicts soldiers on the front lines of war, and survivor's guilt. But there was no question he would return to school. He thought of how the gunman had already stolen so much from him and his classmates.

"If I didn't come back," Joseph said, "it was letting him win."

Isaah Jean, a 14-year-old freshman who came face to face with the gunman and broke his foot sprinting from Building 12, said he is unsure how he will focus. Hobbling around on crutches, he stares at the ground, sadness weighting his face.

"I'm trying to pay attention, but in the back of my mind, anything could happen," he said. On his first visit back to campus, he grew uneasy: "Something in my mind was telling me to keep moving, to not stay in one place for too long."

There are students, too, who have found a sense of purpose. Suzanna Barna, a senior who was in the high school newspaper class when the shooting happened, planned to go to school for engineering because she excels in physics. But Suzanna, who is helping assemble a memorial edition of the student newspaper and who traveled to the state capitol in Tallahassee to speak to lawmakers about gun control, is reconsidering her aspirations, weighing journalism or politics.

Teachers and staff returned to the school last week to prepare it for students, but some were too fearful to enter their classrooms, and one showed up with a deep-purple bruise marking where a bullet had slid past her shoulder. One teacher has asked for a therapy dog to be permanently stationed in her room.

Bruna's first visit to the shattered campus, like many of her classmates, came Sunday, when students returned for an orientation and some retrieved belongings - backpacks, gym bags, Valentine's Day presents with wilted flowers - abandoned in the rush to escape. Principal Ty Thompson offered a hug to every student, and therapy dogs - friendly golden retrievers - hovered outside the campus entrance.

Students were greeted by well-wishers clad in angel costumes and handing out white carnations, and they passed the homegrown memorials lining an entire side of the campus. One girl embraced another on the sidewalk: "I'm so happy you're alive."

Bruna's mother, Alessandra Oliveira, who cries whenever her daughter stoicly recounts that day, offered to drive her to school Wednesday. Bruna instead will ride the early-morning school bus.

"I just want to go back to normal," she said. "I'm not scared."

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