The massacre that killed 17 people in Florida, as well as other recent school killings, reopens emotional wounds for officials and victims who continue to cope with the fatal shooting last September at Freeman High School.
Superintendent Randy Russell was attending the National Conference on Education in Nashville this week when news broke of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which killed three coaches and 14 students and injured 15 others.
“With each one of these shooting incidents, it takes Freeman right back to where we were in September,” Russell said. “You go through the full range of emotions. It’s just like reliving it all over again. How could it not?”
Even before the latest tragedy, conference officials planned to make security and social media the focus of the event, which was put on by the School Superintendents Association, Russell said.
“In fact, the superintendent from Sandy Hook is one of the top speakers,” Russell said.
The Dec. 14, 2012, shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, remains among the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. It was perpetrated by 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who shot his mother before going to the school and killing 20 children and six adults with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. He later took his own life.
Russell joined the painful fraternity Sept. 13 when Freeman sophomore Caleb Sharpe, 16, is alleged to have brought an AR-15 to school concealed in a large bag. According to witnesses and court records, Sharpe pulled out the rifle but it jammed when he tried to load it.
As he struggled with the rifle, fellow classmate Sam Strahan approached and spoke to Sharpe. The shooter then pulled a handgun and shot Strahan twice, killing him, according to documents charging Sharpe with first-degree murder. Investigators allege that Sharpe then fired into a crowd of students, injuring three girls.
Sharpe appeared in court this week, and a judge delayed until May 21 the hearing that will determine whether he will be tried as a juvenile or an adult.
The lethality of the Florida shooting, in which 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz is alleged to have used an AR-15 with multiple magazines, wasn’t lost on Russell. Freeman could have been much worse if the shooter had been able to load the AR-15 that he obtained from his father’s gun safe, he said.
“Your mind does go through that, absolutely,” Russell said. “So, your heart just breaks knowing the number of casualties there are. But it doesn’t matter how many casualties you have, it’s obviously devastating.”
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich personally helped reunite students and distraught parents outside Freeman just after the shooting.
“The same emotions that I felt that day in Freeman come right back,” he said, referring to the Florida shooting. “My heart goes out to all those people down in Florida who are dealing with the tragic situation.”
In the days following the killing of Strahan, Russell praised the support he received from school officials in Spokane, the region and the nation as he grappled with the aftermath.
It’s the path he now follows.
“We do connect with those school districts. Unfortunately, having gone through it ourselves, I usually wait for a while,” he said.
Russell said he remembers the “overwhelming” demands to respond to victims, scared parents, questions from the public and coordination with law enforcement that occurred right after the shooting at Freeman.
“When something like (Parkland) happens, you are automatically going to check on people in other school districts,” Russell said. “It’s not an option to walk the other way even though … you know how difficult it is and even though it feels like you are just pulling off the scab of a really bad wound.”
Months after the shooting, Russell continues to reach out to the families of those affected.
“We want to make sure we are checking on them and make sure their kids are OK and their families are OK,” he said.
Very soon those calls will go out to his counterparts in Florida.
“You do it because you can provide some compassion and hope for these people who are going through these difficult situations,” Russell said. “There is hope and people need to be a lot more compassionate to other people.”
Voters on Tuesday approved a capital levy for the Freeman School District that will upgrade security. He said he’s not yet sure what all of the upgrades will entail.
“We are currently working on that right now,” he said.
Part of that work will be to consult with other school districts, Knezovich, the Washington State Patrol and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
“Those are the same group of experts we keep talking with and asking for suggestions and options,” he said. “We’ll have that in a month.”
Knezovich said, as far as he knows, the biggest change in security at Freeman since the shooting has been talking.
“That is one of the things that came out of that event,” he said, “to make sure that we have active and real-time communication going on.”
He used as an example the Friday arrest of an 11-year-old boy in Spokane Valley that prompted a modified lockdown of Trentwood Elementary and East Valley Middle School.
Detectives learned Thursday night that a boy had made threats against two other children while they chatted on Instagram Live.
“During the threats, the suspect said he knew where the victims lived and where they attended school,” according to a news release.
Detectives arrested the 11-year-old boy Friday morning, and he was booked into the Juvenile Detention Center on two felony counts of threats to bomb or injure property and two counts of harassment.
Asked if sheriff’s investigators would have responded as quickly to that incident prior to Freeman and other school shootings, Knezovich said: “I think that goes without saying.”
“If we are going to ask these kids to talk about this and give us information … then we need to do something with that,” he said. “If we find a credible threat, even it turns out to not be a credible threat, we will track it down.”
He relayed the story of how his detectives investigated a social media post that appeared to threaten violence at a Spokane-area high school. The detectives later learned the post was two years old and referred to a similarly named high school in North Carolina.
“When they do come forward, we need to make sure they know we are doing something with that information,” Knezovich said. “The kids are taking this seriously and we appreciate that.”
Reporter Amy Edelen contributed to this story.
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