Santa Fe High School students returned to school Tuesday for the first time since a gunman killed 10 people on the Texas campus 11 days ago.
With only two days left until summer break, the students found strength and comfort in community, greeting each other with hugs as they entered the campus.
Supporters including community members and alumni lined the streets to cheer on the students as they made their way to school. The onlookers waved signs declaring “We Love Santa Fe” and “Santa Fe Strong,” maintaining a presence for several hours in the midmorning heat.
Students and teachers from neighboring districts joined the crowd. Andi Lewis, a teacher from Pima, Texas, drove with students for more than an hour to show support.
“It just really hits close to home for us so we just wanted to come show them they’re in our thoughts and prayers and we’re still thinking of them,” Lewis said.
“It’s cool to be here and let these kids know we’re supporting them and they’re not alone,” student Kennedy Morgan said.
Others tried to shield the students from media by holding signs and umbrellas in front of cameras. “We don’t want you here,” one man told a CNN crew. The school district has asked the media to stay off school property all week – including Friday night, when graduation is scheduled. The district said the event will be live-streamed on the school’s website.
A visit from the governor
Every student in the district received a “Santa Fe Strong” T-shirt during the course of their day, the district said. At Santa Fe High School, students, staff, parents and community attended a general assembly with a special visitor, Gov. Greg Abbott.
The governor discussed the events of May 18 as well as a school safety plan he will unveil Wednesday, Santa Fe Independent School District said on Tuesday.
The governor honored law enforcement with special commendations for their heroism during the shooting and conducted roundtable discussions with students, parents and teachers.
Large police presence
Students encountered a large police presence that included reinforcements from state and Houston law enforcement agencies.
Officers guarded school entrances and a long line leading out of the building suggested increased security measures inside. Parent and visitor check-in took longer than usual due to additional security measures implemented on every campus throughout the district, the district said.
Teachers returned to work last Wednesday. In addition to increased security, the school district provided counseling resources in locations throughout the district.
“We understand that many of our students were directly and indirectly impacted by the tragedy of Friday, May 18, 2018. With the assistance from many state and local agencies, we were able to provide mental health support throughout the district for our students and staff and will continue to do so for as long as there is a need,” the district statement said.
Creating new memories
Signs and messages around the community, about 20 miles outside Galveston, bear the phrase #SantaFeStrong.
On the eve of their return students expressed mixed emotions about returning.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever be ready to go back to school,” said senior Kaitlyn Richards, who evacuated during the shooting.
“But I don’t want that last day to be my last memory of my senior year. I just want to know I can see all my classmates once again,” she told CNN affiliate KTRK.
Some students told local media that they wanted to graduate at their campus and that they wanted to see their classmates and friends for the final days of school.
“We just have to get together, love one another, and just persevere,” Ken Harms, a history teacher told KTRK.
Police say accused gunman Dimitrios Pagourtzis said he meant to kill the people he targeted and avoided those he liked. He is charged with multiple counts of capital murder in the deaths of eight students and two teachers. Thirteen people were injured in the shooting.
Kaylee Hartung and Devon Sayers reported from Santa Fe. Emanuella Grinberg wrote this story in Atlanta. Tina Burnside and Jamiel Lynch contributed reporting.