‘I feel like I lost my edge’: Effects of Freeman High School shooting still echo for teachers
March 26, 2023 Updated Sun., March 26, 2023 at 4:44 p.m.
Anne-Marie Ophus was a teacher at Freeman High School during the shooting in 2017 and left teaching afterward. Ophus stands Thursday outside the school. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)
On Oct. 25, 2021, a 14-year-old boy brought a loaded gun in his backpack to University High School.
Thankfully, no one was hurt or killed. The boy showed the gun to fellow students in the bathroom. They reported it to school officials, and he was quickly arrested.
For Marty Jessett, though, the incident had a shattering impact. The boy had sat in Jessett’s first-period algebra class with that backpack between his feet – a backpack with no textbooks, no notebooks, no pencils or folders. The only thing inside was a loaded handgun.
After school, when Jessett learned what had happened, he packed up some of his things and told himself: “I’m not coming back.”
“Once I found out that it was that student, who was in my room, and I’d walked past that backpack l don’t know how many times, I thought, ‘I can’t do this,’ ” Jessett said.
He finished the week and left teaching forever, the end of a career spanning more than three decades. But it wasn’t the events of that day, in and of themselves, that changed Jessett’s life so dramatically.
It was another day, another school, another boy, another gun.
• • •
One-thousand, five-hundred and three days earlier, Jessett and the other teachers and administrators at Freeman High School were having a staff meeting before class.
The 2017-2018 school year had just begun. The theme of the meeting was helping students who needed extra attention. An administrator encouraged teachers to identify one or two students and make a particular point of helping to make them feel more connected to school and the Freeman community, Jessett said.
As an example, the administrator told the staff about his decision to change the schedule of a student who had been struggling, in order to better fit his needs.
“His name?” Jessett would later say in court. “Caleb Sharpe.”
Though Freeman – located around 18 miles southeast of Spokane near Rockford – is a small district where you might say everyone knows each other, Jessett did not know Sharpe. He returned to his second-floor classroom and began to prepare for his first-period geometry class. It was early September, and there was no more natural place in the world for Jessett to be.
He had been in classrooms since he was 5 years old. A student and then a teacher and coach. His wife was a teacher, and their oldest son was, as well. Then 49 years old, Jessett had taught at University High, St. George’s School and Cheney High. It was his fourth year at Freeman, and he planned to teach seven more before retiring. He was also coach of the boys basketball team, which had its sights set on a state championship.
As he sat at his desk, preparing for that first-period geometry class, he heard a series of pops.
“It sounded more like balloons popping, books falling to the floor,” Jessett said.
• • •
What happened at Freeman High that day is well-known. The name Sam Strahan – whom Sharpe murdered – is well-known. The details of the criminal case – well-known.
What is harder to know – impossible, really – is the way that day lives on inside of those who were there, though there is no doubt that it does, in different ways for everyone involved. About half the teachers and administrators at Freeman High that day have left the school or the profession; the rest stayed and continued to teach in the school where it happened.
Everyone was affected, and everyone in a personal way.
Like Jessett, former Freeman English and special ed teacher Anne-Marie Ophus initially tried to continue teaching. She took a leave immediately after the shooting but returned before the end of that academic year and worked the following one. But she left after that year, deciding that “I am not doing right by the kids and I have to give up teaching,” she said.
This year, Ophus, who is also a real-estate agent, returned to substituting occasionally at the district. She said she has loved being back with the students but has also had a hard time in other ways – lockdown drills are much more difficult, for example. She hasn’t decided whether she will continue.
“It’s a back-and-forth for me,” she said.
Like Jessett, science teacher John Hays’ classroom sat directly at the point in the hallway where the shooting occurred; he was among the most immediately involved, caring for students who were shot as the attack unfolded.
He has continued to teach in the same classroom.
“I don’t think my teaching has changed any more than I am always looking to improve each lesson I teach,” he said, in a written response to questions for this story. “Even though the incident happened right outside my door it doesn’t have any adverse effect on my teaching or attitude toward FHS.
“I was sad to see some of our best teachers leave, partly due to the incident, but everyone has to be true to themselves and pursue avenues that help them heal.”
Freeman Superintendent Randy Russell said many leaned hard on their faith and family relationships. In a small, close-knit district like Freeman, the support of the community was vital.
“Everybody’s going to deal with this differently,” he said, “and there really is no finish line.”
• • •
After a shooting, our attention goes first to the effects on the children. At Freeman, that starts with Strahan, the 15-year-old who was shot to death by his classmate. Three other students were seriously injured: Emma Nees, Gracie Jensen and Jordyn Goldsmith.
Many more carry psychological wounds to this day.
Stanford University researchers estimated that in 2018 and 2019 alone, more than 100,000 students were affected by a school shooting. These students tended to suffer from a drop in grades, lower attendance and higher antidepressant use, and were less likely to go on to attend and graduate from college.
But the long-term effects of gun violence on educators are profound, as well, and school districts often deal with high turnover and other challenges for years after a shooting. And in the post-Columbine era, with the focus on drills and preparation for shootings, the shadow of gun violence spreads even further.
“There isn’t one teacher in the country who isn’t impacted by gun violence,” said Abbey Clements, a teacher who survived the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut, and who co-founded the group Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence.
Between the Columbine shooting in 1999 and the end of 2022, there were 121 active shooter incidents in schools where people were killed or injured, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database. Last year, there were 51 such shootings, with 332 people killed or wounded, according to the database and Education Week.
Actual shootings, though, are only a part of the shadow of gun violence in the classroom. Incidents such as those where a student brings a gun to school, but doesn’t end up using it, are a part of it, too.
The school shooting database tracks all gun-related incidents at schools – anytime a gun is brandished or a shot is fired, at any time, at a school. This includes incidents at sporting events or extracurricular activities, domestic violence and gang violence that touches a school, suicides and other incidents apart from an active shooter.
More than 1,600 such incidents have been recorded at schools since 2000, with a sharp increase since 2018. This year is on pace to surpass last year’s record of 303. That is to say nothing of the general frequency of mass shootings at all locations.
Clements’ group was formed to elevate the voices of teachers in the debate over responses to school shootings. Teachers and students are now on a kind of front line – one that none of them is prepared for, she said.
“The onus of the gun violence epidemic should not fall on the shoulders of the teachers and the children in classrooms,” she said.
Those who survive a shooting at school go through something unique among survivors of gun violence. They return to the scene of the crime, over and over.
“A therapist once told me it was like soldiers returning from a war, who are all returning to the same space, and who are trying to care for kids who have also been impacted by it directly,” Clements said.
• • •
Jessett – on that September morning in 2017 – soon realized that it was not balloons popping or books falling to the ground, as students out in the hallway began screaming and racing away.
Jessett hustled as many students into his classroom as he could, as the gunshots echoed down the hall. Even as they did so, some people couldn’t quite believe it. Jessett said one student asserted it had to be a pop gun; everyone doubted such a thing could happen at Freeman.
Even the fact that one of the girls who was shot by Sharpe had taken refuge in his room didn’t fully convince Jessett. Her wound was so small, nothing like he would have expected.
“She had just a little trickle of blood coming down her belly,” he said.
It would turn out that it was the exit wound, and there was an entry wound in her back. Jessett and the other students tried to bandage her with athletic tape in the chaos. Jessett called 911. Students called and texted their parents, huddled around and even under his desk, tried to reassure each other that they would be OK.
Outside, in the hallway, Jessett said he could hear one of Sharpe’s other victims crying for help. He didn’t know it yet, but Strahan also lay out in the hallway, along with one of the other victims.
Hearing the call for help, Jessett was torn. Naturally, he wanted to open the door. But the school had held its active-shooter drill just a day before; the training encouraged teachers to keep the door locked during a shooting, given that they can’t tell who’s on the other side.
“It was an impossible decision,” Jessett said. “I didn’t know what was going on out there. I didn’t know if I could help her. It happened so fast. I had to make the decision in a second. Am I going out or am I going to lock the door?”
He didn’t open the door.
• • •
Down the hallway, Ophus had heard the first shots – and thought it was fireworks. Like Jessett, it was only when students began running and screaming that she recognized what was happening.
Sharpe was a student in her class, though he obviously wasn’t there then. As he moved down the hallway shooting his classmates, Ophus was trying to get her students into her classroom to lock the door. She told one boy to pull the door closed and lock it. Instead, he went into the hall to look.
Ophus has a vivid memory of the terror of that moment – of watching him go into the hall before she could stop him.
“I felt like I just couldn’t get there fast enough,” she said.
They went into lockdown. She told her students to get ready to fight.
“I turned to the boys and said if the glass (beside the door) breaks, we’re going to fight back,” Ophus said. “Everybody grab a desk!”
She also remembers telling a weeping girl that she needed to cry more quietly.
Adding to the terror of the moment, Ophus couldn’t reach her son, who attended Freeman and was typically in the classroom next door. She eventually made contact, and he was unhurt.
Sharpe emptied his pistol and threw it down. A janitor, Joe Bowen, confronted him with a Leatherman tool, and he surrendered. Hays, meanwhile, had come out into the hallway, where he was attending to the injured students.
• • •
A shooting destroys the tapestry that makes up any school, said Cheri Lovre, who runs the Crisis Management Institute of Salem. That tapestry is a complicated weave of individuals and relationships, with shared histories and experiences, shared goals and assumptions.
“Freeman had a certain tapestry – and then there is a big gash in this tapestry,” Lovre said.
Some people have an immediate response after the event: anxiety and depression. Some bury themselves in moving forward – the work to be done, the students to be cared for. Some follow the criminal case and put their focus there.
Some have a strong reaction only later – after making it through a school year, say, or after the criminal case is resolved. But everyone has some form of long-term response, Lovre said.
“When it comes up again, it comes up with the power and the impact to the psyche that’s similar to the original experience,” she said. “I hear from people 25 or 35 years out who are having occasional incident-related dreams or having places they still avoid.”
Lovre goes to schools to help the staff and surrounding community deal with the aftermath of shootings – to help them answer the question: Who are we now? She was at Freeman High the day after the shooting there and stayed for days. She said the range of responses from Freeman teachers is representative of the way school staffs tend to respond to shootings.
Relationships suffer. Teachers have upsetting dreams about the incident or can’t sleep. Some become wary of being in crowds – avoiding movies or concerts. The simple act of returning to school can be difficult. Some seek counseling; others try to soldier on.
Lovre surveyed the staff of one large district 18 months after a shooting, finding that many teachers suffered fractures in their marriages, missed a lot of classes and struggled day-to-day.
“What surprised me – even me, and I know this stuff – was 50% said they felt anxiety every day at the point where they left their car and walked into the building,” she said.
Out of that storm of individual reactions, it takes a long time to weave a new tapestry.
Russell, the superintendent, said that in many ways the school had to start over. Staff had to be replaced. A new culture rebuilt. Time had to pass.
“You kind of have to rebuild yourself from scratch, too,” he said.
He said the experts say it takes a school about a decade to fully recover after a shooting.
Russell feels like Freeman has done that, in terms of rebuilding the staff and culture – thanks to the commitment of the people in the district and support in the community – in five years.
“I said this earlier this year to our entire staff: We’ve got our mojo back.”
• • •
Immediately after the shooting, Freeman was put under a spotlight. The criminal case and the attendant media attention kicked into gear. Reporters contacted people at the school or their homes; counselors were brought in; a plan developed for returning to classes – which happened the Monday following the Wednesday shooting.
For Jessett, those days unfurled in a kind of daze. Moving forward one task at a time. Trying to put on a brave face. Wondering what to do. The school and surrounding community grieved together, supported each other, leaned on their faith and families.
In a statement Jessett read to Judge Michael Price during Sharpe’s sentencing, he talked about the first day back in school – how he tried to offer his students support, how they’d listened to music, how he “had zero idea what to do or how to help.”
“Then we returned for another awkward day the next day, and then again the next,” he said. “We had to return to the scene of a murder every day for the rest of the school year, another 170 school days. … We did feel the love and support of the entire Spokane community as many, many, many school districts and organizations wrapped their supportive arms around us. However, it was the longest school year of my career. It felt like five years.”
Ophus felt unable to return, and so she took a leave of absence. But that decision was fraught as well – she felt bad, knowing that others had returned.
“I remember feeling kind of weak,” she said. “The others all stayed. I felt guilty … but I could not have done the job.”
Ophus, a Spokane native and Shadle Park graduate, had been teaching at Freeman since 2004.
One of the concerns she and others had was that there had been serious red flags about Sharpe that had not been shared with teachers. Among other behavior that got the attention of students, Sharpe had written notes to friends, who alerted school officials, that said he was “going to do something stupid that is going to get me killed or arrested,” Jessett said in court.
The note was seen as a possible warning sign of suicide and thus treated as private medical information.
It wasn’t the first time Ophus had felt concerns about the way student privacy protections had limited what she knew about a child in crisis.
“Part of the decision to leave is knowing that because of the way the system is designed, there are things that teachers won’t be told, and that is a scary situation,” she said.
Jessett said he found it “ironic and infuriating” that, on the morning of the shooting, as the staff discussed how to help students like Sharpe, Sharpe was at home preparing to murder people at his school.
He felt that more people should have been alerted to Sharpe’s earlier threatening note, and a more active plan developed for how Sharpe would return to school. Had people known about the note, someone likely would have paid more attention to him that morning and done something to intervene, he said.
In any case, questions about what the district did, before and after, played a role in how some staff members responded after the shooting, Jessett said.
“It’s hard, but it is the reality,” he said. “A lot of people did feel resentment.”
Russell said he understood people were frustrated with the limited information about Sharpe’s actions beforehand – and that he shared some of those frustrations.
“The law limits what you can say” about students in crisis, he said.
Questions and criticisms about a district’s response is common after shootings, Lovre and Clements said. Teachers each face a difficult decision about what to do next.
Clements, the Sandy Hook teacher, left the school where the shooting occurred, but continues teaching in the district.
As she wrote in a piece for Every Town for Gun Safety: “So many decisions have to be made after a school shooting: Keep teaching? Where? How? Same grade or new?
“If you were at a bank during a robbery, you’d never bank there again. You’d probably change your whole banking experience. But I’m a teacher. It’s what I was trained to do – what I had been doing for 20 years. So I keep doing it.”
• • •
Hays, the science teacher, said he did not struggle with his return to class. He said the district offered support that helped teachers work through their emotions and be there for students, and that the love and support from parents, students and the community was incredible.
“It definitely is something that will always be etched into my memory forever, watching a young man walk down a hall, gun in hand, shooting classmates,” he wrote.
But he also said the shooting didn’t change his approach to teaching or his attitude toward Freeman.
“I do know that we had several teachers that had a difficult time coming to school each day,” he wrote. “That was not my experience. I have literally thousands of positive memories of FHS and even though some of my favorite students were involved in this incident, it didn’t affect my positive feelings toward Freeman or the community here.
“I think about Sam (Strahan), his mom and especially his sister Emily, who I was close to, on a weekly basis.”
If educators responded differently at Freeman, the persistence of the memory of that day for them seems universal.
Ophus found herself wary of going far into any building – going toward the back of a grocery store, away from the exits, made her anxious. She began to look closely at everyone, wondering if they were safe, wondering if she could read their motivations and intentions. She had a panic attack at a Gonzaga basketball game and had to leave.
“It took months and months and months for that to get better,” she said.
She knew other teachers seemed to be getting along better, and asked herself, “Why am I the only one who can’t hack it?”
In the year after the shooting, when she returned, she just came to feel she wasn’t up to the job.
“Kids deserve really good teachers who are willing to work hard and be there and show up,” she said. “I feel like I lost my edge.”
With her recent work as a substitute, she’s trying to figure out if she still feels that way.
• • •
Less than three weeks after the shooting at Freeman, a gunman opened fire on concert-goers on the Las Vegas Strip. Sixty people died and more than 400 were injured.
One of the victims was a former student of Jessett’s from Cheney High School.
“The world seemed to be spinning out of control,” Jessett said.
Around the same time, Freeman received a threat of another shooting that hung over the staff’s heads for days. Jessett said he was filled with a “sickening rage and paralyzing anxiety” – though he continued to do his best as a teacher and a coach. He said he became a “zombie version” of himself, and it magnified some of the unresolved issues in his marriage.
The next fall, he and his wife separated – they would later divorce. During counseling, he realized he couldn’t return to Freeman High, where he would relive the shooting every time he went in the building. He returned to University High in fall 2018 and tried to move on.
One of the main challenges for teachers who survive school shootings is the fact that typical sights and sounds can provoke traumatic memories.
“The sound of footsteps running, screaming, loud noises, popping balloons, slamming lockers, the roar of a crowd – these are all triggers for me that take me back to the most traumatic day of my life,” Jessett told the judge. “My heart races and I start looking for an escape route.”
Another challenge is the fact that school shootings are in the news constantly.
Jessett worked the COVID years at U-Hi, trying to fight through the anxiety and difficulties lingering from the shooting while managing the challenges of pandemic education – until that day in October 2021.
In the days after the boy brought the gun to school, Jessett “became more and more filled with rage and anxiety,” he told the judge in his statement.
He actually did return to class for a few days, and each day he left telling himself, “I am never coming back.”
“I was suspicious and short-tempered with my students,” he said. “I was becoming the teacher I never want to be.”
Less than a week later, he was granted a leave of absence. He hasn’t taught since. Jessett moved to San Diego. He remarried. He is still looking for the next chapter in his life. He would like to work with kids, perhaps at a nonprofit, or just take a job somewhere like a grocery store, but it’s hard to find the right fit.
“I kind of feel like I’ve restarted my life and I’m going to redefine who I am,” he said. “I guess I’m not a teacher now, or not in the same way.”
He still avoids crowds. The seemingly constant stream of news about other shootings brings it all back, freshly painful. He thinks about it every day.
“I loved my time there,” he said. “I loved my time at all the schools. I love kids and working with kids. I’m too young not to be doing it anymore. But I just don’t feel safe.”
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