WELEETKA — Today is the first day of classes at Graham Public Schools — and despite the best efforts of teachers and administrators, much will be different.
Two months ago, the 100-student school lost two of its pupils in an act of violence that has paralyzed the community with fear.
"It's a hard age to try to explain to,” said elementary Principal Wanda Mankin. "And their belief that all's right with the world is now shattered.”
Taylor Placker, who was going into the seventh grade, and her best friend, Skyla Whitaker, who was going into the sixth grade, were shot to death June 8. They were left lying in a ditch along a dirt road four miles northeast of Weleetka. The killer or killers have not been arrested, and investigators say they have no suspects or apparent motive.
School officials have decided to try to move forward with some semblance of normalcy.
Mankin said she didn't want a team of counselors walking around, and didn't want extra security patrolling the hallways. Such obvious reminders of the killings might prove counter-productive, she said.
"We may have a student who is happy that school is starting, but they see a counselor and think that means they are probably supposed to be sad and that something may be wrong with them for feeling what they are feeling,” the principal said.
School officials have also closed the campus to news media. They also changed school bus routes to avoid the crime scene where the two girls were shot to death, Mankin said.
But in a school where a dozen teachers manage 100 students, there's little doubt the absence of Skyla and Taylor is going to be felt.
Reminders of the girls
Teachers and students who preregistered for classes were given green and purple rubber bracelets that read: "In memory of Taylor and Skyla — BFF,” or best friends forever.