The emotion was raw, the memories as if the massacre happened yesterday and not a year ago.
But even though attendance was optional, hundreds of students decided to pour into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to commemorate the anniversary of the school shooting that killed 17 on campus.
Amid tears and laughter, they painted rocks and planted flowers in a campus garden, packed lunches for a food bank, and served breakfast to police and paramedics — all while supporters and journalists gathered outside.
“I came here to help people,” said Nerlyn Abraham, a sophomore who witnessed the shooting a year ago. “We had a good day. We ended up fooling around and just laughing.”
Juliette Rodriguez, like the rest of her classmates, was not required to be at school today.
“Everybody is in a constant struggle,” Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said during a news conference outside the school. “There is a lot of post-traumatic stress here. For some, it’s almost as if it occurred a yesterday. It’s raw.”
Runcie visited the school with students arriving by the final 7:40 a.m. bell. He said attendance was “significantly” low, as expected.
“We have given our students and our families the opportunity to spend a day in a manner of which they wish,” he said. “There are a variety of opportunities throughout the community and across the county to engage in service and support activities.”
A big focus of students’ efforts today: a memorial garden to replace a long-standing memorial on the northeast corner of the school’s campus. The project was the brainchild of a psychology teacher and one of her students, senior Victoria Gonzalez.
“People needed somewhere to go and there was nowhere,” Gonzalez, 18, said. “We all just had to figure it out ourselves where to reflect and I think this gives some people a specific place they know where they’ll be reflecting and where they’ll be able to heal. This brings people peace and that’s all we want for the community.”
Gonzalez’s boyfriend, Joaquin Oliver, was one of those killed. Oliver was a fan of Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade and he was buried wearing a Wade jersey. The Heat honored his family during a game last season.
“He was a really old soul and understood everything going on,” she recalled. “He had his priorities in order. He was all about love, all about peace. He was the perfect guy.
Most students wore their school colors of maroon and white, and the school’s marque had a rolling message that reminded them:
“Feb. 14 A Day of Service & Love. Be Positive. Be Passionate. Be Proud to be an Eagle. #MSDSTRONG.”
One freshman boy who requested to remain anonymous said he came to school “to show your respect and to be here is important.”
“It’s a day for peace and have a memorial,” he said.
The shooting left the campus divided in some ways — the students who survived the shooting and the incoming class that wasn’t there.
“The kids who didn’t experience it, we feel like we don’t have a right to talk about it,” said Mikayla Ennis, a freshman.
She came to school for the feeling of solidarity. “We came together today.”
In the news conference Runcie said he agrees with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision, announced Wednesday, to appoint a statewide grand jury that will look into school security issues not just in Broward County but in other parts of Florida.
“I think it will be a good step to help districts around the state to understand where we all are relative to safety and as much as we can learn that will help up to get better,” Runcie said. “My goal is each and every day to make our district safer than it was yesterday and anything we can learn that will help us toward that goal, absolutely I welcome that.
Among those visiting the school today were the parents of Scott Beigel, a teacher and cross-country coach who was hailed as a hero for saving the lives of several students before he was killed.
Linda Beigel Schulman, Scott’s mother, said the day brought back so many difficult memories.
“I walked down the path today,” she said. “It was like reliving last year when we walked down the path.
“No one should ever stand in our shoes. I don’t want anybody to ever stand in my shoes.”
Michael Schulman, Scott’s father, lauded his son as a hero.
“He saved lives,” Schulman said. “He always thought about kids. That was Scott. He was only here six months. Just imagine if he was here six years. He touched so many lives.”
Outside the campus were several members of the South Florida chapter of the Guardian Angels, a group based in Lake Worth whose members have patrolled the perimeter of the Stoneman Douglas campus almost daily since the tragedy. Among those there today: a Jupiter resident named Vito.
Vito, who requested his last name not be used, said he was honoring the 17 victims.
“It’s kind of a solemn day,” he said.
The bell rang at noon and students quickly shuffled onto buses or walked off campus, where television cameras lined the road.
It was mostly freshman in attendance today, since the school district canceled class and instead offered kids the opportunity to do community service, students said.
Gabbey Montes, also a sophomore, came to campus in the morning “feeling anxious” about the day, memories still raw from a year ago. She wanted to be surrounded by friends, she said.
“We had our ups and downs for the day,” she said. One down: when the campus fell silent at 10:17 a.m., the moment the shooting took place a year ago.
“It was really hard in that moment,” Montes said. Ultimately, she’s glad she went to school for the half-day.
“It was what I was hoping it would be like,” she said. “It was nice.”
Palm Beach Post staff writer Andrew Marra contributed to this story.