'Healing journey:' Oxford teens walk back into the scene of the crime before school reopens Monday

January 22, 2022, 11:48 AM by  Alan Stamm

(Photo: Justin Powers Jr./Facebook)

This post from Tuesday is updated. 

Oxford teenagers have started the next steps in a "healing journey," as their school district leader describes it. Those who want to visit the building they fled nearly two months ago have returned since Thursday evening to see a new look in the entryway and halls.  

"I’m a little anxious about it," student John Edwards told WXYZ before visiting Friday night.

"I know a lot of people, me included, want to see a big change with how it looks and everything because I don't want to look at the place and say this is the same place that this happened, I want to look at it and think this is just school regular school," says Edwards.

A three-day open house continues Saturday morning and afternoon for six hours as a prelude to Monday classes at Oxford High, the first there since a deadly shooting on November's last day. Preview visits were offered to smooth the emotional occasion, a transition from memories of terror to a resumption of whatever normal feels like now.

"A new step in our healing journey will be taken ... as we continue to navigate our return from the unthinkable," Superintendent Tim Throne posts at the Oxford Community Schools site. "Oxford High School is opening its doors once again."

Journalists are asked to keep away. The district posts this Saturday morning:

Throne announced the visiting hours last Monday as a chance "to come to together as a family before the first day back." Parents were invited to accompany students, as was anyone "else who has been working with their child through the healing process."

Memorial hearts painted on a boulder at the high school have slain schoolmates' initials. (Photo: Kathy Hubbard/Facebook)

Since Jan. 10, displaced students have been able to attend what the superintendent calls an "alternate hybrid schedule" of in-person instruction for half-days at the middle school for part of the day and online learning for the rest. 

Oxford High has nearly 1,800 students from five townships and two villages in northern Oakland County. The 78-square-mile district, which also serves about 5,300 other students, is among Southeast Michigan's largest geographically. 

All other buildings reopened Jan. 3 after a lost month of learning following the Nov. 30 gunfire that killed four students and wounded six, plus a teacher. Those lost are Hana St. Juliana, 14; Madisyn Baldwin, 17; Tate Myre, 16; and Justin Shilling, 17.

The return follows "thousands of hours of work from construction crews, mental health experts, interior and graphic designers, and school administration," posts the district leader, who delayed a planned Jan. 21 retirement. 

The purpose of inviting OHS students and parents to these open houses is to view the physical space before students begin classes. ... You will notice the calming new paint colors and wall graphics, new tile around the classroom entries, drywalled ceilings, and new carpet. ...

It has also been suggested by mental health experts to add small white lights in as many classrooms as possible as they are proven to have a calming and therapeutic effect.

As part of the moving-ahead process, memorial items and signs displayed under a canopy outside the school since early December will be removed Sunday. Child trauma specialist Jim Henry of Western Michigan University and "those from other schools that have gone through similar situations have advised us that the temporary memorial should not be there when our students return to campus in order to further their healing process," Throne posts Wednesday. "

Families of our lost and injured Wildcats will be given the opportunity over the next few days to choose items they wish to take home with them. All other items and signs will be collected and stored until long-term memorial plans are made. We have had the temporary memorial professionally 3-D scanned.

On Monday, returning students each will get a gift bag with donated items collected and assembled by a community group called Oxford Strong.

High school athletic practices started two weeks ago and Wildcats competitions begin next week.

Tim Throne: "We sincerely apologize."

There was one misstep in the reopening plans. He cancelled a two-hour Sunday afternoon open house for other Oxford residents because of "concerns from our high school parents and students."

The superintendent's follow-up post explains:

We were asked to consider having an open house for our school community (beyond OHS) to give them a chance to heal, to feel safe once more in our high school and to aid in their journey to peace as well. This was designed for our parents of younger students who will someday walk those halls, our former students, our volunteers and substitute teachers who ... may have been present that day and will be there to serve our students in the days to come. ...

The cries of worry and concern from our high school families over hosting the community open house take precedence over the requests we have received to hold it.  ... Therefore, we have decided this is not the right time to open our high school academic halls beyond our current OHS families and staff. ... We will consider a similar event in the future, once our students have taken back their home building. ...

We sincerely apologize for the anxiety this has caused.

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