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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

After shooting, pupils make emotional return to Florida school

Classroom was left exactly as it had been during the carnage with notebooks still on desks and the calendar still set to February 14

Well-wishers place mementos the day students and parents arrive for voluntary campus orientation at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, for the coming Wednesday's reopening, following last week's mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, February 25, 2018. Angel Valentin / Reuters
Well-wishers place mementos the day students and parents arrive for voluntary campus orientation at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, for the coming Wednesday's reopening, following last week's mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, February 25, 2018. Angel Valentin / Reuters

Pupils and teachers on Sunday returned to a Florida school for the first time since 17 people were shot dead there, consoling each other even as they called for swift action to address gun violence.

"Imagine [being] in a plane crash and then having to get on the same plane every day and fly somewhere else — it's never going to be the same," David Hogg, a survivor of the February 14 shooting at a Parkland, Florida high school, told ABC television's This Week.

The school held a voluntary "orientation" on Sunday, with teachers and staff due back starting Monday and classes resuming on Wednesday — a prospect described as "daunting" and "scary", but which is also a step for survivors to move forward after the attack.

One teacher who had already been back told NPR radio that the shock of returning to a classroom left exactly as it had been during the carnage — notebooks still on desks, the calendar still set to February 14 — made her so physically ill she had to leave.

But Cameron Kasky, a pupil who survived the slaughter, tweeted a picture of people on campus, saying: "It is GOOD TO BE HOME."

"I have all my friends here with me and it just makes me feel like I'm not alone in this situation," pupil Michelle Dittmeier, who attended the orientation, told ABC.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School also received support from alumni, with previous graduating classes making banners to decorate the school, WSVN TV news reported.

In nearby Fort Lauderdale on Sunday night, religious leaders gathered for an interfaith vigil that left 17 chairs empty in memory of the victims, WSVN reported, after protesters gathered outside the Kalashnikov USA gun manufacturer in neighbouring Pompano Beach.

"Gun reform now!" read one of the protesters' signs, while another called for the "death factory" to be shut.

With ardent demands by pupils like Hogg for action, President Donald Trump has said he is open to raising the minimum age for gun purchases and to banning so-called bump stocks, which can effectively convert semi-automatic weapons into automatic firearms, but which were not used in the Parkland killings.

Speaking at the Governors' Ball ahead of meetings with the top officials from all 50 states on Monday, Mr Trump said school safety is a top priority: "I think we'll make that first on our list."

Read more: New breed of activists to force change on guns, survivor says

A new CNN poll, conducted a week after the Florida shooting, shows surging public support for stricter gun laws — surpassing levels seen even after other horrific shootings in recent years — and for a ban on powerful semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 used in Parkland.

Overall, 70 per cent of those surveyed said they supported stricter gun laws, up from 52 per cent in October, and 57 per cent favoured a ban on semi-automatic arms, an increase from 49 per cent.

The United States has more than 30,000 gun-related deaths annually.

Florida Governor Rick Scott has laid out a plan to station a police officer at every public school in the state, raise the legal age for gun purchases from 18 to 21 and pass a "red flag" law for authorities to more easily remove guns from the mentally ill or people with violent histories.

The age change and "red flag" law are staunchly opposed by the influential National Rifle Association, of which Scott is a member.

Mr Scott, who holds the NRA's highest rating of A+, said on Fox News Sunday that "there will be some that disagree. But … I want my state to be safe".

Dana Loesch, an NRA spokeswoman, told ABC her organisation opposes most of the proposed gun measures.

Instead, she placed blame on politicians for their inaction and on law enforcement — specifically the Broward County Sheriff's Office, which she said had ample warning of the violent tendencies of Nikolas Cruz, 19, who is charged in the killings.

She accused the sheriff's office of "abdication of duty" for not arresting Cruz sooner.

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In an often-contentious interview on CNN, Sheriff Scott Israel strongly defended his officers' work.

Of the 23 calls to his department about Cruz's erratic or threatening behaviour, nearly all were minor and had been handled appropriately, and a few others were being investigated, he said.

Mr Trump has also proposed arming some teachers, a step many teachers passionately oppose.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told C-Span in an interview that "it's a terrible idea, period, full stop".

Children, parents and teachers, she said, "want schools to be safe sanctuaries for teaching and learning, not armed fortresses".

Delaney Tarr, another young survivor of the Florida shooting, said she was girding herself as best she could to return to school.

"It's daunting … [and] scary because I don't know if I'm going to be safe there," she told Fox.

"But I know that I have to."

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