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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: For the Freeman community, the echoes of one tragic morning persist

Feb. 4, 2022 Updated Fri., Feb. 4, 2022 at 7:46 a.m.

Victim advocate Barbara Gumm reads multiple victim impact statements in Spokane County Superior on Monday written by Freeman High School students, teachers, family members and other loved ones affected by the shooting at the school in September 2017.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Victim advocate Barbara Gumm reads multiple victim impact statements in Spokane County Superior on Monday written by Freeman High School students, teachers, family members and other loved ones affected by the shooting at the school in September 2017. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

If you heard it, you’d never forget.

Sept. 12, 2017. A warm, late-summer morning, suddenly filled with a sharp dread. A group of parents waited in the Freeman High School parking lot, desperate for word about their kids following a shooting, knowing that one child had died in that building and wondering if it was theirs.

Then Ami Strahan’s cry pierced the air. Everyone had their answer.

“I will never get out of my head the scream that followed from Ami that just discovered the worst news a parent could ever get,” Jason Putz, whose children attended Freeman, told a judge this week.

No one who heard it ever will. I was there that day and it echoes for me at the slightest reminder – at any mention of Freeman, at news coverage of the prosecution of Caleb Sharpe, at any whisper of possible danger for my own child, at the latest in the continual string of school shootings, like this week’s shooting in Richfield, Minnesota.

There it is. I suspect it always will be, and I was but a bystander on that day. For those inside the school – or waiting in terror outside it – the echoes of Sept. 12, 2017, are continuous.

As much as I wish no one would suffer such a moment – as much as I wish we could unwind time and erase that anguished cry and the reason for it – there is also a part of me that wishes everyone could have heard it, if it had to be. A part that wishes everyone was forced to bear witness to what happened after a child took a duffle bag full of guns to school and shot his classmates.

It should be impossible to forget.

In recent days, as the sentencing for Sharpe approaches, the people who are carrying the strongest, most painful echoes of that day have been sharing them with Judge Michael Price, as he prepares to hand down a sentence. Sharpe, 20, has pleaded guilty to killing Sam Strahan and injuring three other students.

One after another, they have sounded these echoes.

“I had my best friend taken from me that day,” one student told the court about Sam Strahan’s death.

“I live in a constant state of fear that someone has a gun on them,” wrote another student in a victim’s statement.

That student, now at Boise State, called it the worst day of her life. Another wrote of how she continually strategizes about where to hide in the case of a shooting.

The school custodian said, “Come to realize schools have become just as dangerous as a war zone.”

A teacher wrote of his ongoing emotional turmoil, “Sometimes I feel there is no rhyme or reason for why I feel the way I do about the shooting.”

A teacher who called 911 from her classroom said, “I was convinced we were going to die.”

The wife of the superintendent spoke in court of the trauma that rippled through her entire family – and of how she was eventually diagnosed with caregiver fatigue syndrome trying to keep up with it.

Sam Strahan’s uncle said, “I will never forget that day and the horrible moment we learned the news.”

A grandmother of two students said, “You never expect to send your child off to school and have them murdered.”

A mother said, “Both of my children were not physically in the hall that day but they felt it. They wear and feel the pain and scars of that tragic day for themselves and the victims in so many different ways.”

On and on the testimony has gone. Days of it. One former teacher and coach at the school who tended injured students that day, Marty Jessett, spoke of being in a restaurant with the basketball team the following spring – and hearing balloons pop. Most of the kids ducked under the table, he said.

It’s not over for them. It won’t ever be – no matter how harsh a sentence Price gives to Sharpe and no matter what else happens on their individual roads away from the events of Sept. 12, 2017.

“In a matter of about 30 seconds,” Jessett said, “our lives were changed forever.”

They’ll never forget. Neither should the rest of us.

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