A year after five students died in a shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck High School, the school and community say the healing process has just begun.
Elaine Soriano used to tell her six children that when she died she wanted a bench placed in Everett’s Legion Park in her memory. But last spring, she bought a bench first — for her 14-year-old granddaughter, Gia Soriano, one of the five teenagers who died a year ago Saturday at Marysville-Pilchuck High School.
Soriano sets a guest book on the bench every morning, for family and friends to write messages. She brings the guest book back home each night, so it doesn’t get wet.
She’ll probably stop carrying the book to and from the bench at some point, she said. But not yet.
“For now, it’s healing for me and a lot of people,” she said. “We’re still going through a very, very hard time.”
On Saturday, the Marysville-Pilchuck community will gather at the Snohomish County high school. It will remember Gia Soriano and the other teenagers killed in one of the deadliest high-school shootings in the nation’s history. The community will reflect on what’s happened in the year since the tragedy — with widespread efforts to ensure everyone who needed counseling or support received it, and smaller ones, such as changing the tone of the school’s alarm so it will never again sound the way it did that day.
Walk of Strength
Community members are invited to “#MPStronger — A Walk of Strength” Saturday morning at Marysville-Pilchuck High School to mark one year since the deadly shooting at the school.
The memorial event will include a moment of silence in the school’s stadium, followed by a walk around the school and the opportunity to plant one of 10,000 red and white tulip bulbs.
The stadium opens at 9 a.m., and organizers expect to have all attendees in the bleachers by 10:15 a.m. They’ll observe the moment of silence at 10:39 a.m., the minute that the shooting began a year ago.
The trauma moved well beyond the school, into the city of Marysville and the nearby Tulalip Reservation, two communities where nearly everyone seems to have some connection to the shooting. Mental-health experts estimate that thousands of people have needed some form of counseling.
In the month leading up to the one-year mark, students and staff said they weren’t sure how they’ll feel on Saturday.
“I don’t know how it (Saturday) will affect me,” said Alisha Purdom, now a senior who was in math class when the shooting occurred.
“I’m not sure if it will hit me like a wall, or in what way. I’ve grown a lot since then.”
For her part, Elaine Soriano said she and her family aren’t planning to attend the events at the school.
“We’ll probably just sit at the bench and cry,” she said.
Gia Soriano was one of the students — all friends — shot in the middle of lunch time on Oct. 24, 2014, before a classmate turned the gun on himself. The aftershocks from that trauma quickly moved through the school and into the Marysville and Tulalip communities.
A year later, a number of students are still in counseling and school leaders look for ways to help their students, and themselves, recover. They added more security staff and locked the cafeteria’s doors until that building is torn down.
In many ways, the school has just begun to grapple with being a part of a growing club that no school wants to be a part of.
The sound of a helicopter, the empty cafeteria, news of yet another school shooting — all of that and more pulls students and staff back to that terrible Friday morning.
Zoe Galasso, 14, a bubbly artist who played volleyball, died at the scene. Soriano died two days later. Shaylee Chuckulnaskit, 14, whose family members and friends remember her by all the selfies she left in their phones, died Oct. 31, 2014. Andrew Fryberg, 15, a natural athlete who loved random road trips to Yakima with his sister just to go to Miner’s Drive-In, died a week after Shaylee.
Nate Hatch, then 14, was shot in the jaw but survived. He has since transferred to a neighboring school, where he plays football. He posted a tribute to Andrew on Instagram for his birthday in August, when he would have been 16.
“I could only imagine what we would be up to and how much fun we would still be having and it still all feels unreal and like a bad dream I wish I could wake up from,” Nate wrote. “Ever since you left things haven’t been the same.”
Jaylen Fryberg, the gunman, who was reportedly upset about his girlfriend and grades, also died at the scene. Few at the school or in the community refer to him by name.
About 100 students were in the cafeteria that day, and about 2,000 students and staff were on the school’s campus. Some of the most affected students were the ones stuck in classrooms for hours, said Marysville School District counselor Josh Webb. The students who were eating lunch were able to run away, feeling they had some control, he said, while the students in classrooms had to wait in fear until SWAT officers could clear the each room.
Teachers and students at neighboring Totem Middle School also were hit hard — most of the victims had attended that school just a few months before.
One Marysville resident told district Superintendent Becky Berg that the shooting brought back memories of World War II. “You don’t predict one act will have such far-reaching consequences,” she said.
At the school and in the town, people sought out counselors and joined support groups.
“We talked about what fears we had,” said student Purdom, who was in a support group last spring with six or seven other girls at the school. Whenever Purdom walks into a room, she still thinks about what she’ll do if a gunman bursts in.
On the Tulalip Reservation, where the Frybergs and Hatch were tribal members and Chuckulnaskit was part of the extended Tulalip community, much has been done to try to address the trauma from the shooting, and past trauma brought to the surface by the event. Hatch and both Frybergs were all cousins.
“There was a tremendous amount of grief,” said Rochelle Lubbers, who was named the tribes’ recovery manager after the event.
The Tulalips, with 2,700 members living on the 22,000-acre reservation, is still working with The International Trauma Center, a Boston nonprofit that works with communities after mass-casuality incidents.
They offered counseling sessions and suicide screenings, and tribal members, from Quil Ceda Elementary kindergartners to elders, have taken part in art and music therapy.
A community-access line is in the works, where tribal members will be able to call one number to get access to mental-health services.
There’s still a rift between those who mourn Jaylen Fryberg as a troubled young man whom they see as a victim in some ways, and those who refuse to speak his name.
Lubbers felt helpless after Oct. 24. She no longer feels that way.
“We are not the shooting,” she said. “We are healing and our parents are getting the resources to help our children … This isn’t our future.”
In January, just two months after the shooting, someone called Marysville-Pilchuck’s front office and said there was a bomb on campus. Students and staff were evacuated into the parking lot while police officers and searched with bomb-sniffing dogs. There were two more threats the next day.
The threats were a hoax, but they reignited memories of the shooting. The number of students who visited Matt Remle, the school’s Native American liaison, picked up. Purdom jumped every time the intercom came on.
“I don’t think the fear set in, and it didn’t become real, until January,” she said. “I couldn’t focus.”
After the deadly shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., the student visits to Remle’s office increased again.
That shooting also took Frank DeAngelis back to the day in 1999 when 15 people died at Columbine High, the Colorado school where he was principal. DeAngelis spoke with Marysville officials from his home in the Denver area and offered advice in the immediate aftermath.
The pain doesn’t go away, DeAngelis tells people around the nation. It can return in an instant.
Sixteen years later, he still meets with a counselor.
With that in mind, Marysville-Pilchuck has asked that no helicopters fly over during Saturday’s memorial, because it might trigger flashbacks.
Doesn’t define school
On a recent Friday, Marysville-Pilchuck students filtered out of classrooms and into awaiting buses and cars. Like any school at the start of a weekend, the campus is nearly empty within 20 minutes.
But there is a “before” and an “after.” Before, students ate in the large cafeteria, which is now shuttered, its windows blocked with white sheets. Now they cram into the activities center for lunch. Before, a fire alarm meant a fire drill. Now, it brings back memories of the shooting because a student in the cafeteria pulled the alarm that day.
Before, Marysville-Pilchuck High School was simply Marysville-Pilchuck High School. Now it’s Marysville-Pilchuck High School, the site of a school shooting, a name mentioned alongside Columbine and Sandy Hook and Seattle Pacific University.
Students and teachers don’t want the event to define their school. They still have pep assemblies and homecoming dances. As part of her role as student president, Purdom and her friends made a friendship bracelet for every student at the school.
“I still love this school,” senior Megan Stuart said. “That didn’t change.”
In Remle’s office, where there’s a photo of Andrew on the wall and drawings by Shaylee’s relatives, he recently recounted being in the school’s library last Oct. 24, letting others use his phone because they had fled without theirs. With helicopters overhead, SWAT officers with dogs around him and little information about what was happening, he realized he should call his wife and kids.
“We have to let each other know how much we love and care for them, and don’t let time pass,” he said. “What if you don’t even have that one phone call?”
“I don’t think there will ever be a time when this all goes away,” he added. “I don’t know how it could.”