NEWPORT NEWS, Va. – For many Heritage High School students, Friday was a big step closer to normal life. Friends had a chance to reunite under Friday night lights.
“Honestly, I feel like it’s going to be weird since we haven’t seen them in a long time,” said Heritage High School sophomore Cierra Guilford.
It’s been nearly four weeks since the shooting at the Newport News school sent shockwaves across the community.
Friday’s football game was the first time for many students to see each other face to face. Since the shooting, they’ve been learning virtually.
For Imani Hayes, this wasn’t how she planned on starting her senior year.
“I’m ready to go back to school,” said Hayes. “I don’t like being in my room, and I miss being around people.”
Staff members, including Heritage High School Administrative Secretary Rhonda Arrington, were back in the building two days after the shooting.
She’s still coping with the trauma.
“We’ve been in the building every day, and it’s been a transition,” Arrington said. “The coping is more manageable as the days have gone by.”
Arrington’s office is just a few feet away from where the chaos unfolded last month. The day is one she remembers vividly.
“You could hear a crowd gasp, and hearing that in concert, a collective gasp and you can see the crowd shift back and get the impression they saw something,” said Arrington. “Then instantly right after that in a split second, the first gunshot.”
Arrington said the sound of gunfire was unmistakable.
“When that thing popped off, it’s a sound you just can’t get out of your head; it just rings,” she said. “At that moment, that’s when the rest of the shots came, maybe four, five extra shots, like pow, pow, pow. They were loud and back-to-back. All of this happened in a matter of seconds. Then all the students turning in the opposite direction and just fleeing and the fear on their faces as they ran. It’s always a challenge as an adult to see kids experience something you can’t take away.”
That’s when the school went into lockdown. Arrington said she ran into the office bathroom to hide.
“It was the back hall and that was also the area where the police officers and people were responding, so you can kind of hear what’s going on on the radios,” she said. “You hear stuff, but you don’t know what you’re hearing, you don’t understand it and through my mind, all I’m thinking, is this the last place that I’m ever going to be?”
Hayes said she’s also traumatized. That day, she said there were only a few people separating her and the 15-year-old student who fired the gun wounding two of his classmates.
“We just all started running,” said Hayes. “Everybody was running everywhere. I ran into the bathroom. It was just really, really scary.”
Even though the students know going back to school won’t be the same, they say they’re ready and Friday’s game is a start to the healing process and moving forward.
“I’m excited,” said Cierra Guilford just as the game was starting. “Hopefully they do good.”
Safety was top of mind at the game. There was a big police presence.
Newport News School Superintendent Dr. George Parker said they want to make students and teachers feel safe especially when they come back to school. He said they’ll have a better idea of when that’ll happen next week when details of a safety plan are hashed out at Tuesday’s board meeting.
“You want to make sure you’re listening to folks and hearing their concerns and ensuring that whatever plan we put in place, it’s going to meet the needs of our community as best possible,” Dr. Parker said. “We will have grade-level meetings when they come back to talk about safety, talk about expectations, how to keep our campus safe, what are some expectations around behavior at the school.”