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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A year after tragedy, Freeman High will hold candlelight vigil tonight

Freeman’s Dakota Steiger (72) wears an arm band memorializing fellow student Sam Strahan as he joins hands with teammate Jace Phelan (5) in remembrance before the start of a football game Sept. 18, 2017, against Medical Lake  at Freeman High School in Freeman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

One year later, Freeman is still strong. And vulnerable.

Reminders of strength are everywhere. Hashtagged signs hang on houses and barns and the cars and trucks that ply the roads south of Spokane.

Vulnerability hides in the offices of mental health counselors, who still serve clients scarred by the violence of Sept. 13, 2017.

The gamut of emotions will converge again tonight at Freeman High School, where a community will join hands on the football field for a candlelight vigil at 7:15.

The public is invited, because the young people of Freeman want to share the moment with the community that wrapped itself around the students one year ago.

The ceremony is less about reopening old wounds than paying respectful tribute to the fallen and those who helped pick up a community in its darkest moment.

“This week is about a variety of emotions,” said Freeman superintendent Randy Russell, who has led the school district and the community through 12 difficult months following the shooting death of student Sam Strahan and the wounding of three other students.

“You want to be very respectful, because we lost a student, a young man,” Russell said Wednesday. “But this week has been difficult – you take it one breath at a time, one minute at a time.”

Sometimes those minutes have passed painfully slowly.

For some, the challenges are ongoing.

Those signs are less visible. They’re hidden in the offices of mental health counselors like Sean Hendrickson of MultiCare Spokane.

Five days after the shootings, Hendrickson and two colleagues from MultiCare Spokane visited Freeman High School.

“I think we did a good job letting the students, staff and families know that we would be available,” Hendrickson said Wednesday.

“We still have some of those students and adults coming to our clinic,” Hendrickson said. “We let them know that they’re not alone.”

Hendrickson expects that the one-year mark will evoke painful memories for some.

“There’s going to be some pretty strong emotions tomorrow morning, like a door slamming, that may trigger some of those memories,” Hendrickson said.

Haltingly, Freeman has moved on.

Gracie Jensen, who suffered a spinal cord injury in the attack, had to wait until spring to be cleared to run track.

Jensen and two other victims, Emma Nees and Jordyn Goldsmyth, were celebrity starters at Bloomsday.

At graduation in June, it was Russell who choked up as he reflected on the leadership of the class of 2018.

“We are constantly amazed, impressed and in awe of how each of you rose up and tackled one of the most difficult challenges any could ever imagine in their life,” Russell said then.

Meanwhile, shooting suspect Caleb Sharpe’s case is moving slowly through the court system.

On Aug. 28, Spokane County prosecutors again delayed a hearing to determine whether Sharpe – who was 15 at the time of the shooting – will be tried as a juvenile or adult.

Sharpe, who turns 17 next month, has been charged with one count of first-degree murder, three counts of attempted murder and 51 counts of second-degree assault relating to the other students in the hallway in danger of being shot.

The shooting led to better security at the high school, where all the doors are locked from 8:20 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.

That measure came after input from law enforcement but above all the students.

“You can learn a lot by listening, and our students gave us a lot of answers, and so did the teachers,” Russell said.

“It really was a collaborative effort,” Russell said.

So will be the candlelight vigil.

“It’s a way to pay tribute to Sam, but also a way to remember our three girls and the countless number of heroes,” said Russell, who singled out custodian Joe Bowen for confronting the gunman and causing him to pause before he was taken into custody by a school resource officer.

Russell also paid tribute to the first responders, and the students and staff on that awful day.

“It really was a community coming together,” Russell said.