The day a Freeman High School student shot four students, killing one, was his first day back to school after he was suspended for writing notes that appeared to warn he might commit violence.
Freeman Superintendent Randy Russell confirmed in an interview for the first time Friday that the district knew of warning notes passed out by the shooting suspect and that the school responded by suspending him.
Following the shooting, students told The Spokesman-Review that Caleb Sharpe had passed notes to his friends warning them that he planned to do “something stupid.” One of those notes was reportedly passed on to a school counselor.
At a meeting Thursday, Russell told students and their families that upon receiving Sharpe’s note, the school immediately contacted his parents, according to one parent who attended the meeting. School officials followed school protocol by suspending the 15-year-old sophomore and barring him from school until he passed a mental health evaluation, the families were told.
The parent spoke on the condition of anonymity because the school has asked families not to share details of the case publicly.
Russell said at a news conference Friday that federal law barred him from discussing details about any specific student.
But when asked if the counselor called the parents, whether the school suspended the student and sent him for a mental evaluation, Russell confirmed that, saying: “That’s what our protocol looks like and we followed it to a T.”
The confirmation puts to rest some of the speculation about what school officials knew and why they didn’t do more to intervene with a student. Sharpe, who turns 16 on Oct. 10, now faces a charge of first-degree murder and could be tried as an adult.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said that until Friday he had not known of Sharpe’s suspension. Law enforcement has been focusing on crime scene evidence, and will begin looking into the events leading up to the shooting next week, he said.
However, based on what he has heard up to this point, he said, it appears the school did everything it was supposed to do.
Instead, he pointed to flaws in the way mental health systems and the broader education system handle potentially violent cases.
“The system works against getting the proper care for the kid, because the proper care for the kid is not always sending them back to school,” he said.
Echoing the sheriff’s praise, the parent said the school had behaved properly. “The school is perfect. The kids were perfect. It doesn’t matter what measures you have in place. If they have a plan, they are going to do it,” the parent said.
“I think what motivates the blame is the illusion that this can be prevented,” the parent said. “There is no blame except that kid.”
Victim’s family breaks silence
Speaking on KXLY-TV Friday evening, Sam Strahan’s family delivered a statement thanking the community for its support and asking that their privacy be respected.
Sharpe is accused of shooting Strahan twice after Strahan confronted him as Sharpe struggled to load bullets into a rifle, according to court documents.
The statement, which was read on behalf of Strahan’s mother by an uncle, said the family was grappling with many emotions in the wake of their loss. Yet “within all those emotions is the fact that I am very proud that my son made a difference for others,” the statement reads.
“Sam had a huge heart and has been going through so much since the loss of his father,” who died tragically in an accident in June, the statement reads. “As a mother I am so proud to see that he responded to this situation in the exact same way that his father would have responded. Sam understood the value of life, and we feel he really wanted to protect his friends, including Caleb, whom he knew,” the statement says. However, the two were not best friends, as has been reported by some outlets, it read.
The family said Strahan will be remembered for his quirky smile and beautiful soul. “My son is now with his dad in heaven, and I am certain his dad is giving him a huge hug and telling him how proud he is of him for his courage,” it reads.
The family asked that they be given space to “grieve, reflect and process this tragedy.”
The statement closed by saying that, while they are supporters of the Second Amendment, they also believe it is the responsibility of owners and parents “to keep guns out of the hands of those that are too immature to handle them.”
“This could have been prevented!” the statement reads.
‘I can’t leave Gracie’
Among the new information presented at the meeting were stories of how students risked death once the bullets started flying.
The day started much like any other. Sharpe got onto the school bus at his normal stop near his parent’s home, which is on 5 acres overlooking the Hangman Valley.
Just moments after arriving at the school, according to court records, Sharpe opened up the bag and pulled out an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. The gun jammed when he tried to load it, however, and he then grabbed a pistol and shot Strahan twice.
He then started shooting down the hallway, injuring Jordyn Goldsmith, Emma Nees and Gracie Jensen.
One of the girls was released from the hospital Thursday. The others are in satisfactory condition at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, the hospital said in a news release.
“I listened to kids all day yesterday,” the parent who attended the Thursday night meeting said. “This school is like a family. They love each other. For them to say, ‘Caleb has a gun, Sam is down,’ no other school would know everyone in the hallway.”
“When Gracie went down, one of the girls next to her went down on the ground and held her hand and put her life at risk,” the parent said. “She said, ‘I can’t leave Gracie.’ ”
After the rifle jammed and the shooter used the pistol, janitor Joe Bowen, who had been in the military, yelled at Sharpe to drop the gun and he complied, ending the threat.
Bowen then ripped something off the wall and covered Strahan so that students would not have to see his body as they exited the school, the parent said.
“I think there is nothing but admiration for how everyone on the second floor handled that,” the parent said.
Russell said he spoke with parents of both Strahan and Sharpe, who were described by some students as friends.
“I had the opportunity today to talk to Mr. and Mrs. Sharpe on the phone. I checked in with them and let them know our thoughts and prayers are with their family,” he said. “I also got to meet with Mrs. Strahan in person to offer our condolences for the loss of her son.”
Asked if he felt helpless that the shooting occurred after the school followed its protocol, Russell acknowledged limitations.
“It’s very frustrating, because as an educator, you have to be able to work and rely on outside agencies to provide support,” he said. “Folks are doing the best they can, but they are also working with limited resources.”
Knezovich echoed those comments on Thursday when asked about possible breakdowns in the system.
“I don’t blame the local mental health. They don’t have the money to deal with this because the state has abandoned them,” he said. “This is a state and national issue that they better wake up and start dealing with.”
Coming back home
At the news conference, Russell said staff will work all weekend to prepare Freeman High School to reopen after the tragedy.
“We are encouraging our parents, if they can, to accompany their students back to Freeman on Monday and spend as much time as they would like to with their students,” Russell said. “Our plan is to have the students, staff and parents walk arm in arm and go through the high school. We want each student to feel safe and secure at the school.”
He thanked what he called overwhelming support from other schools, professionals and the Freeman family over the past several days.
“Today and this weekend, the focus is to get our staff ready for the reopening of the school,” he said. “Each of us is still hurting, but we are here for each other. The Freeman family has never been stronger.”
Reporter Eli Francovich contributed to this report.