Morning sunlight peered through the windows into the Watson Chapel Junior High School gymnasium, where faculty and students otherwise found themselves in emotional darkness Thursday, less than 24 hours after a 15-year-old freshman died from a shooting that occurred on campus three days earlier.
"We hurt, but I'm so glad to see you here," Principal Uyolanda Wilson said, her voice soft as she fought back tears. "This is new to me. This is new to us all."
The school community assembled in the gym along with Watson Chapel School District Superintendent Jerry Guess, ministers, Southeast Arkansas Behavioral Health specialists, an Arkansas Department of Education representative, and counselors from the Pine Bluff and Dollarway school districts helping people to cope with the death of Daylon Burnett, a 15-year-old freshman who played on the school's football team.
"In all the years we asked for community support, they came through," Wilson said, collecting her emotions.
Burnett died at a Little Rock hospital at 5:35 p.m. Wednesday, his mother Lakeisha Lee and the Pulaski County coroner's office confirmed.
Burnett's classmate, Thomas Quarles, also 15, now faces a potential murder charge in Monday's shooting. He was charged with first-degree battery Wednesday morning in Jefferson County District Court when Burnett was still in critical condition, but Prosecuting Attorney Kyle Hunter said his office would seek to upgrade the charge if Burnett died.
Sylvia Webb, a counselor at the junior high school, sang to the tune of her favorite gospel song, "I Need You to Survive," and changed a few of its words to: "I need you; you need me; Chapel Schools need you to survive."
"I'm handling it because I need to be strong, so if I'm strong, I can talk to the children to make them strong," Webb said. "Like I said in the song, I need them to survive. We're here for them. As a school counselor, I care for every student on this campus."
According to a school re-entry plan that faculty members issued Thursday, the school established "safe rooms" in each hallway of the school where counselors and mental health professionals could escort students who needed to talk with them. Students reported to their third-period classes -- the same period when the shooting occurred Monday -- to pick up belongings they may have left, and teachers were asked to designate a place for safe storage of backpacks.
Teachers also were provided with talking points to begin discussions with students.
The Rev. Jesse C. Turner, president of the Pine Bluff Faith Community Coalition Ministerial Alliance, told students that he and other ministers were there to give them three simple words: "We ... love ... you."
"This is the support. This is the community that supports you," Turner said. "We're going to walk along beside you and do all we can to support you. Why? Because we ... love ... you."
Arkansas Department of Education counseling department head Rodney Ford returned to the school where he once taught and addressed concerns from residents about whether students should have returned to school so soon after the tragedy. Students went into virtual learning Tuesday and Wednesday, and the plan to reopen campus was already made when Burnett died.
"Don't try to blame the school," Ford said. "We may be wrong, but a decision was made. We're learning from this."
Ford said he sent a message to Lee on Wednesday night saying: "We are here for you and we do care for you."
Guess said "there aren't any rules" for handling a school day in the aftermath of tragedy.
"Rev. Turner said it best. These people are here because they love these students and these faculty members," Guess said. "So, what we have to do today is to be in the process of healing and working through this terrible trauma. That's what we're going to do."
Kristy Sanders, the district's K-12 curriculum director, works on the second floor of the school. When asked how she was doing, the former junior high assistant principal and high school principal said she just tries to be strong for others and usually doesn't release her emotions until after school.
"They are my babies," Sanders said. "A lot of them, instead of them calling me Mrs. Sanders, they call me Mama because I was their school mama."
Some teachers took a bereavement day Thursday to deal with the loss of one of their students, Sanders said.
As of Monday, a GoFundMe account for Burnett's funeral and medical expenses reached $9,012 of the $10,000 goal.
Burnett's mother thanked those who prayed and donated.
"Please keep my family in you guys prayers," Lee wrote on GoFundMe.
Pine Bluff Police Chief Kelvin Sergeant told the seventh- through ninth-graders that "something good" will come out of a tragic situation, although they may not see it at the moment.
"I never heard someone say, God can't bring something good out of something bad," Sergeant said. "We will heal. We will get through this."
Webb had a similar message for community members: "We're going to make it through it. We've got to be positive. When these kids see we're positive, then they will be positive and strong."