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Pupils return to Florida high school devastated by gun massacre

Students walk to class at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Wednesday. Picture by Terry Renna, Associated Press
Kelli Kennedy, Terry Spencer and Robert Ray, Press Association

Classes have resumed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for the first time since 17 students and teachers were killed by an expelled classmate with an AR-15 rifle, thrusting pupils into the centre of America's gun debate.

As well as about 50 uniformed police officers, grief counsellors are on campus in Parkland "to provide a lot of love, a lot of understanding" and help students ease back into their school routines, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said.

A long line of cars circled the school and dozens of television trucks and vehicles were camped out nearby as pupils, parents and staff were ushered through a security cordon.

A banner "Welcome Back Eagles" sign covers the main entrance, and the walkway leading onto the campus is lined with flowers, photographs and other memorials to the those killed. Some of the students returned despite severe gun wounds, but even those who were not hit by bullets have spoken of emotional trauma.

The Douglas students return to school after two weeks of political activism that has reignited the nation's gun and school safety debate. Douglas sophomore Charlotte Dixon said some of her friends are having a hard time returning to classes, but they are encouraged by the attention to gun laws their actions have brought.

Ms Dixon said: "I'm so glad that people are stepping forward and talking about keeping it relevant ... because it shouldn't happen to anyone ever again."

Relatives of the Stoneman Douglas victims kept up the pressure in Florida's capital with emotional testimony during a legislative hearing to discuss passing a bill that would, among other things, raise the age limit to buy long guns from 18 to 21.

The bill also would create a programme that allows teachers who receive law-enforcement training and are deputised by the local sheriff's office to carry concealed weapons in the classroom, if also approved by the school district. The school's superintendent has spoken out against that measure.

The House Appropriations Committee's 23-6 vote in favour of the bill followed more than four hours of emotional discussion with the parents of some of the 17 killed, and nearly two weeks of activism by students on social media and in televised debates.

Governor Rick Scott said he hopes a gun and school safety bill is passed before Florida's annual legislative session ends on March 9. He had proposed measures that overlap with the legislature's plan but did not include arming teachers. However, he declined to say whether he would veto the sweeping package if it included that provision.

Max Schachter, father of 14-year-old victim Alex Schachter, said the bill the House committee eventually approved does not go far enough - but could have saved his son.

"If we would have had these measures in place, I would not have had to bury my son next to his mother a week and a half ago. I'm pleading for your help. I'm willing to compromise. Are you?"

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