Few enter the cafeteria at Marysville-Pilchuck High School, where five freshmen were fatally shot six months ago, including the shooter, and one was wounded. The building stands off from the rest of campus, its gray doors locked.
“It’s been shuttered basically,” said Becky Berg, superintendent of Marysville School District. The district sometimes allows the doors to open – for investigators, or students who feel the need to see the space for closure.
“It pretty much looks like it did Oct. 23,” Berg said.
The tragedy left staff and students wrestling with questions big and small. Where would students eat lunch? Should the yearbook mention the shooting? And how to grade traumatized students?
After the shooting, teachers opened their classrooms to students, starting an informal tradition. The gym also became an impromptu lunchroom, and an awkward empty space off a hallway was furnished with overstuffed couches and an enormous Teddy bear.
Meanwhile school officials must decide the future of the cafeteria as they seek funding for a larger overhaul of the high school campus. Berg said an online community survey drew 1,900 responses.
About 67 percent said they wanted the cafeteria torn down straight away.
But many students say they don’t want the scene of the shooting erased. Senior class president Nick Alonso said he hopes to see the cafeteria replaced with a memorial that acknowledges what the school has been through.
“Just taking it away won’t benefit healing,” Alonso, 18, said. “This is something significant that happened here on campus and remembering what happened is really going to bring this campus together.”
But the future of the physical school is just one challenge for school officials. Others crop up every day. Like how to put out a yearbook. Berg said they decided to put any mention of the shooting or memorials in a pullout spring supplement, so people will have the option to read it.
“We’re such a fragile community right now, that we don’t want to do anything to make things worse,” Berg said. “We did contact as many families of the deceased as we could to find out what they’d prefer as far as their child’s photo in the yearbook.”
There’s been a huge focus on adding more counselors and support groups, on suicide prevention and mental health. Academics can almost seem like an afterthought, but Principal Rob Lowry said officials are continually wrestling with how to grade students as standardized tests and final exams come around.
“By and large we were lenient on the grades,” he said. “But the topic will arise again I’m sure in the next few weeks over what are we going to do with the end of the year.”
Amid all these issues, there was another blow to recovery efforts, one that received only minor news coverage. In January, the school received a string of bomb threats and had to evacuate again. Helicopters immediately hovered overhead.
Alonso recalled seeing a student he was supposed to take home. “I thought she was sick, because she couldn’t stop shivering,” he said. “I thought she had a fever. One of my friends asked her, ‘Are you OK? And she just replied, in the lowest tone, ‘I’m scared.’”
Senior Sierra Price, the student body president, said everyone was scared.
“I think it brought back all of the memories of not feeling safe and not being sure what was going to happen, there was a lot of confusion,” she said.
Mary Schoenfeldt is in charge of the school district’s recovery efforts. She said no bomb was found, that the threat may not even have been local. But the damage was done. She said the bomb threat “ripped off that thin layer of healing that was there. So by doing that, we lost tremendous ground.”
Some parents moved their kids out of the school.
In the recovery efforts, the school district has worked jointly with the City of Marysville and the Tulalip Tribes. Jaylen Fryberg, the 15-year-old shooter, and some of the victims, were tribal members.
Tulalip recovery manager Rochelle Lubbers said she read recently that recovery often involves a surge of community spirit, followed by disillusionment, and then picking up the pieces to move on. That rang true for her.
“A few months out I do believe we were all overwhelmed,” she said. “You question what you’re doing, and you question going forward. And so I think we’ve worked through that piece and we’re back to our plan.”
She said so far they’ve had the resources they need to focus on student wellbeing. Now they’re turning their attention to the summer, when kids may feel isolated, and to the future.
Students say the additional resources are being used and appreciated. Especially the additional mental health counselors.
Freshman class president Bailey Nelson said she knows kids need those counselors, even if they don’t advertise it.
“I’m close with a lot of people that go and it’s just amazing that people did that for us,” she said.
In the days after the shooting, the fence at Marysville-Pilchuck was covered with cards and flowers – Nelson said the solidarity from other schools really made a difference.
“To see that it wasn’t just us putting stuff up there, it was other people who came to put it on our fence – it was just amazing,” she said. And not just other communities – but kids from other high schools also seemed to care.
Nelson said the freshmen, the grade most affected by the loss, continue to grieve. But there’s also been a spike in attendance at school events, and junior Alisha Purdom said it’s all related.
“After October, everyone kind of had this bigger feeling of ownership over the school, as if, ‘This is my school, I’m going to choose how it’s remembered, how I remember it,’ and I think we all obviously value our relationships a lot more because you just never know.”
Alonso said he’s accustomed to sympathetic looks when his school is mentioned at different events, and he appreciates the sympathy, but he looks forward to the day when people will feel admiration for his school instead.
“I want them not to remember what happened here on campus, but how we got over that adversity and were able to overcome such a tragedy,” he said. “And be known for the strength that we have as a school.”