How To Memorialize A School Shooting

Telegraph, Oct 2015

On the anniversary of a massacre, the small town 0f Marysville, Washington, remains starkly divided on one question in particular.

A photo of the school fence hanging on the wall of Becky Berg, School Superintendent

Also read at the Telegraph

Walking through the grounds of Marysville Pilchuck High School, about an hour north of Seattle, one would never know that a mass shooting took place here, barely a year ago. There’s no plaque, no statue, and at 7pm, there are no kids either. The only reminder, in the stark, concrete courtyard, is the school colors on the bounding walls, stripes of bright red and white, the colors of the Red Cross and and the flowers, balloons and handmade posters that decorated the school’s exterior in the aftermath of last year’s tragedy.

“That’s the cafeteria,” says Christen Dickerson, a former student. She nods towards at a couple of unmarked doors. “It hasn’t opened since it happened.”

Christen and a few other alumni have offered to show me around. They all watched the news in horror that day, October 24th, when the freshman Jaylen Fryberg invited his friends to lunch, and at 10.38am, produced a handgun, and calmly shot five of them in the head, going clockwise around the table, before turning the gun on himself. Four of the victims died. And Christen knew one of them. This was all too close to home. So with her friend Danna Gibson and a few others, they formed the MP Memorial Foundation, and set about raising money. In a couple of weeks, they’ll be helping the city and the School District put on the official anniversary event, the “Walk of Strength”.

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“We’ll gather here for a bulb-planting,” she says, as we enter the sports stadium. Suddenly a brighter scene – the football team is running drills under the floodlights and the cheer team is cheering. “This was a meaningful place when it happened. School was shut down for a week, and when the kids came back we had a rally for them here. Everyone was cheering, ‘We’re here for you! We love you!’ So you know, new beginnings. We’re getting ten thousand tulips in red and white.”

There’s a walk around the block and then everyone returns to the stadium where at 10.38am, there will be a moment’s silence followed by some singing – Lean On Me, and a rendition of God Bless America by a local firefighter. The students will spell out a message of hope on their outer fences as first responders hand out carnations. And media will be kept at a respectful distance, just near enough to capture the picture of unity, resolve and togetherness, a milestone in the healing of a small town – #MPstronger.

But beneath the surface is a more complex reality – a town conflicted in its grief, and still struggling to process what happened that day, the grim peculiarities of Fryberg’s crime. It explains why the MP Memorial Foundation has abandoned all plans for an actual memorial.

“We thought maybe a bench or a park, to honor the victims,” Christen says. “But when I was selling T-shirts in my shop to raise money, some people would say, ‘I won’t buy a T-shirt if the shooter’s name isn’t going on the memorial. He’s a victim too.’ And other people would say, ‘I won’t buy a T-shirt if his name is going on the memorial. He’s a murderer.’ That’s how divided this town is. So we gave up on a memorial. Now we offer scholarships instead.”

The mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon on 1 October, in which 10 people died, prompted the hashtag #dontsayhisname, to pressure media organizations to anonymize mass shooters and starve them of notoriety. The #nonotoriety campaign is another, run by a parent of one of the 12 victims of a massacre at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado. But in Marysville, the shooter’s name has appeared on balloons and heart shaped cards. One of the most moving images of the tragedy was the school’s outer fence which the community festooned in the aftermath with flowers, cards and teddy bears. And Jaylen’s name was all over it.

“There were cards that said, ‘We love you Jaylen.’ ‘Miss you bro.’ ‘Can’t wait to see you in heaven.’ Right next to the names of the victims that he shot.” Christen sighs. “It’s a very sensitive issue.”

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The details of Marysville may be hard to recall at this point. A year is a long time in mass shootings. At the time of going to press, 2015 has seen massacres in Charleston, Chattanooga and Roseburg, each one with a flurry of charts and stats in their wake, like the scraps of paper thrown up by a passing train. Apparently, there’s a mass shooting every two weeks in America (‘mass’ meaning four shooting deaths or more). One in six of these is considered a public mass shooting (as opposed to domestic), and within this group is the grimmest subset of all – the mass school shooting. Marysville was once known for its strawberry festival. Now it’s filed alongside Columbine, Virginia Tech, Isla Vista and Sandy Hook.

It was Roseburg that prompted President Obama to channel the nation’s exasperation. “Somehow this has become routine,” he said. “The reporting is routine… We’ve become numb to this.” But what Marysville shows, one year on, is that mass shootings only appear routine from a distance. While the national media moves onto the next one, and the next, ticking the same boxes each time – the chopper footage of the evacuation, the teary vigil, the debate over gun control – for the communities at the epicenter, these acts of shattering violence have a unique, bloody fingerprint, one that often determines how successfully, or not, the community manages to heal.

Jaylen Fryberg was a new kind of school shooter. A far cry from the Columbine trenchcoat-mafia stereotype, he wasn’t a hate-filled monster, or an awkward recluse, working on a bitter manifesto in his mother’s basement. According to most reports he was a charismatic athlete who had friends, a girlfriend, and a promising life ahead. He was elected homecoming prince a week before the murders. His family was prominent in the neighboring Tulalip Indian tribe. He didn’t seek fame or idolise other mass shooters. And the most confounding part – he didn’t target strangers or people he hated. He shot his best friends – his cousin Andrew Fryberg, Nate Hatch (the only survivor) and three girls, Zoe Galasso, Gia Soriano and Shaylee Chuckalnaskit.

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It seems he started to spiral downwards when his girlfriend split up with him the previous Saturday. A string of ominous tweets and texts followed. On Tuesday: “The guns in my hand”. Wednesday: “Bang Bang I’m dead”. Thursday: “It won’t last… It’ll never last…” And on Friday, 24 October 24, his preparations complete, he told his ex on the phone, “I don’t want to be here anymore” and texted his father, “Read the paper on my bed, Dad. I love you.” He then sent his family members a long text titled “My Funeral Shit”, a series of instructions for his send-off, and those of his victims too. He was to be dressed in “camo”. They were to play his favorite songs, in a specific order – “It needs to be POPPIN!!” – then they were to go to his grandmother’s to eat deer meat. Andrew and Nate were to be buried alongside him and his family was to apologise to their families, but he didn’t want to go alone. “I wasn’t happy,” he wrote. “And I needed my crew with me. I needed my ride or dies with me on the other side.”

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Jaylen’s tribal background has been a critical factor in the aftermath of the shooting. Marysville borders a 22,000-acre reservation, the sovereign nation of the Tulalip Tribes, and tensions between the two communities go back centuries. In recent decades, the power dynamics have radically shifted – the advent of Indian Casino Gambling in 1988 has made the tribe, who only number 4500, the second biggest employer in the region, beside Boeing. And yet the name of the high school football team is still the Tomahawks, a recurring sore point with the tribe.

“I think the response to the shooting has brought the racial divide to the surface,” says Emily Wicks, the PR director for MP Memorial. “And that’s OK. It’s time we faced up to it.”

There was a brief backlash against the tribe, even though the crime itself had no racial component – three of the victims were Native American. “We had a couple of reports of some native folks who felt they were being ostracised by non-tribal owned businesses,” says the Marysville Police Chief, Rick Smith. “One incident we think didn’t happened. The other, I gave them a warning.”

But Jaylen’s gun has crystallised ill-feeling against the tribe. His .40 caliber Beretta PX4 Storm handgun belonged to his father, Raymond, who bought it illegally – he was convicted on six counts of unlawful possession on 29 September, having previously been issued with a restraining order by the Tribal Court, and banned from buying firearms according to federal law (he will be sentenced in January). But since tribal authorities are not required to record such orders with the federal database, when Raymond lied on his application form (denying the restraining order) the background check didn’t catch him out. In other words, he slipped through a loophole that exists only for native Americans. Or as Christen says, “There are some people in this town – not me – who feel that if he hadn’t been Native, he wouldn’t have had those guns.”

Civic leaders, however, are quick to emphasize the unity of the two communities in the wake of this tragedy. One of their first projects was the website Marysville-Tulalip United – a resource for recovery with links to victim support services and suicide prevention helplines and the like. “We haven’t always been kind to each other,” says the Tribal Chairman Mel Sheldon, a chuckling grandfatherly figure. “I mean, they weren’t very kind to us. But this tragedy asks everyone to stand as one. And it’s been outstanding.”

For Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring, this unity has been a defining experience. “The pain forges a bond as governments and citizens,” he says. “They’re hurting, we’re hurting. Let’s get through this. So tribal board members were with us through everything – we faced the press together, went to vigils together, on both sides of the border. I’ve never seen people come together like that before – not just leaders, but everyone. I mean, hugging, caring for one another, saying ‘are you OK?’ Everybody just stopped being in a hurry.”

There’s an emotional high that occurs after a disaster such as the one that befell Marysville. The Red Cross has a graph. It begins with the impact itself, the blur of sirens and choppers. Other civic leaders who have experienced school shootings will call their counterparts at this time – there’s a ritual reaching out. The “club that no one wants to be in” has a comforting welcome. One of the first calls Nehring received was from Patricia Llodra from Newtown, Connecticut, home of Sandy Hook Elementary School. And when the news broke in Roseburg, one of the first calls Nehring made was to the mayor there, Larry Rich. Marysville’s police chief and the school superintendent all have similar stories.

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Then the graph starts to rise. The “heroic” stage is about surging pride in the cops and teachers who save the kids before saving themselves. And at the peak, the stage that Nehring cherishes, is the “Honeymoon” period, when the community is unified by grief and sympathy, a sense of oneness. “I’ll never forget I was asked to say a few words for a memorial event,” says Nehring. “I thought maybe 30 people would be there. There were hundreds. And they had just blanketed the whole city in red and white streamers. My wife was crying in the car, saying, ‘What happened?’ It was amazing.”

The downward slide, however, is long. “Disillusionment” is a stage of compassion fatigue and grieving. The sinking awareness of that empty seat in class. And the bomb threats don’t help. “We were warned about those,” says Becky Berg, Marysville’s school superintendent. “Columbine had their first bomb threat in week one. Apparently there are sick human beings who like to retraumatise kids and adults.”

Berg is a gentle, but firm presence at the school district. A mother hen with a plan of action, because as she says, “planning helps with trauma.” So changes are afoot. She now has $7.4m for a new cafeteria – the old one will be torn down by popular demand. There’s a new program to teach parents how to monitor their child’s social media. And three new resource officers are coming on board, bringing the police presence on campus to five.

She has also made two telling hires – a director of counseling services, and a communications director, who joined in July. “We realize that we’re in this for the long haul.” She makes no bones about her wariness of the media. “It can be an additional trauma,” she says. “Everyone grieves at a different pace.” That’s why she has denied me access to her students or teachers. As per the Red Cross chart, the one year anniversary is a delicate time.

In fact, it’s been an emotional morning already. Her office was deciding what to do with the artifacts they collected from the school’s memorial fence – the 30 bags of cards and teddy bears that are currently sitting in storage. There were tears around the table just thinking about it. “We’re going to sort it into named piles in case the family wants to pick it up,” she says. “If not, we’ll have a burning event. And we’ll work with the tribes, because I understand, burning has symbolism there.”

There won’t be a pile for Jaylen. His stuff was collected by his family when the artifacts were first taken down back in November. But Jaylen is still a live topic at the high school. One of its counseling groups meets weekly specifically for students “who were friends with the shooter and didn’t know what to do with that”. These are the students who placed tributes to Jaylen on the memorial fence and mourn him as a victim.

There are adults who could use similar counseling. One of the curiosities of the Jaylen-as-victim camp is that it transcends age, gender and race. The students are both white and native. The people that came into Christen’s shop were largely white adults. This schism has divided not only the school, but the town and the tribe too, each in a slightly different way.

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“His age is a major factor,” says Robert Macy, President of the International Trauma Center. “A 14-year old death is a monstrous thing. Jaylen was one of the youngest shooters of all the school shootings in America. [The youngest was Andrew Golden, 11, who killed five in Arkansas, 1998]. And the younger they are, the harder it is to cast them in a dark light.” Hired by the tribe to help both Tulalip and Marysville, Macy’s team has worked with child soldiers in Africa. “The concept of young perpetrators as victims is well understood. But it’s tough – you’re holding two opposing thoughts in the mind at the same time.”

For the tribe, however, the idea of Jaylen as a victim has been uniquely difficult to reconcile. It has caused a deep rift, the kind that close-knit native communities almost never discuss in public. But Misty Napeahi, the Tulalip Tribes General Manager, is a spirited, forward-looking leader. When she meets me in the grand atrium of the tribes resort hotel, she is in the mood to talk. “It’s time,” she says. “This has gone on long enough.”

She grew up with Jaylen’s family – her grandfather is his grandfather’s first cousin. Members joke that they’re all cousins, but with 800 Frybergs, in three powerful lines, it’s often true. Degrees of separation shrink rapidly on the rez. And Jaylen’s family is powerful. His grandmother was once General Manager, like Napeahi. His grandfather runs the influential Natural Resource Department. And they are known in the tribe as cultural leaders. “They revived ceremonies about rites of passage and the first moon (first menstrual cycle),” she says. “His father sang and danced. Jaylen participated in drum circles. He was being groomed for a leadership position.” A much-circulated picture of Jaylen shows him posing with an elk, his first kill. To Raymond, hunting was part of Jaylen’s grooming as a tribal member.

But after the murders, some traditions fell away. “We gathered around their home for the first three days,” says Napeahi. “It’s traditional when we lose someone that you go to the house and cook and sing until the burial. But they wanted to bury him like a prince. We asked them to keep the funeral small, since he is the shooter, and his victims were in hospital. Also, I was concerned about our own kids. We learned from Robert Macy that suicides happen in clusters, and we were worried about contagion. But they wanted to mourn their son, their brother, their nephew. So they had a huge funeral. There were 1,000 people there. A lot of his classmates. Non-tribal people. A lot of our officers too, to protect the family, because there had been death threats.” Napeahi, however, didn’t go, and neither did several of the tribal leadership. “That’s where the divide started.”

The rift deepened when Jaylen’s parents ignored requests to visit his victims in hospital, as per tribal tradition. They also offered no public apology. And apology is central to the native experience. Few communities have been asked to forgive so much by a federal government that has never owned its sins. Now the Frybergs were doing the same. “The family is responsible for the child they raised,” says Napeahi. “If he busted a window playing baseball, they would have said, I’m so sorry, we’ll pay for your window. So what about when your child takes the lives of other children?”

At this point, communication has broken down entirely. Jaylen’s family members continue to drive around with decals saying “Team Jaylen” (a legacy from Jaylen’s diagnosis of diabetes). And for Napeahi, it speaks to a deeper pathology. “We’re being asked to deny reality,” she says. “And that’s something that plagues our community. We sweep things under the rug. We have been ravaged by alcoholism in this community, so we have fostered ideas around protecting our dysfunction. I know they don’t want to remember him by his last act, but I have to look out for the tribe. If we don’t acknowledge what he did then I’m afraid it could happen again.”

It’s not easy for Napeahi to speak out like this. Tribes have traditionally been secretive for fear of repercussion from outsiders, especially the government. In this case, however, members fear repercussions within the tribe. As one member told me – who chose to remain nameless – “Everyone keeps each other’s secrets here. And this is a powerful family. You worry that if there’s a feud, your children may pay a price.”

It’s these secrets, however, that may hold the key to the community’s healing. A full disclosure about Jaylen’s life might settle the confusion over how to remember him, and how this happened. Because even now, it’s unclear why a boy of such apparent promise would commit such a horrific crime.

“The Secret Service studied school shootings, and they found some commonalities,” says Robert Macy. “There’s often a predisposition to mental illness – a serotonin imbalance, say. Also, a high-conflict family – exposure to violence at the home. And one or more precipitating events. With teenage boys – 12-19 – that usually means getting dumped by a girl, or getting into trouble with the law. And a lot of these apply here.”

A few days before he and his girlfriend split up, Jaylen was suspended from the football team for fighting – two precipitating events. His father had a record of domestic violence – in 2002, his former girlfriend Jamie Gobin got a restraining order against him which became permanent when Raymond failed to contest it. The Tribal Council has not made the order public but Raymond’s cousin, Keryn Parks, told Newsweek, “He’s a monster… he did a lot of bad things when he was drinking.” Domestic abuse involves hurting those you love and exercising control through violence – Jaylen did both. And given the tribe’s close-knit nature, this violence may have gone unreported in Jaylen’s home for years. “The Tulalip Indians should not be blamed for this,” says Robert Macy. “But when you have violence and secrecy around violence, kids don’t have a true north.”

As for the issue of mental illness, no evidence has surfaced beyond the shooting itself, and Jaylen’s delusion that he would take his friends to “the other side” with him. But according to Macy, 95% of suicide attempts involve significant mental illness. Had there been previous warnings? Jaylen wrote that he’d left a suicide note for his father but the investigation reported that no note was found. “That’s what his family reported,” says Napeahi. “But he did everything else he said in his texts. Why would the note be the only thing he missed out?”

We may never know. Secrecy still reigns on the reservation. “Some things in life are inexplicable,” says tribal chairman Mel Sheldon. “How do you deal with it?  Do you accept that there are no answers, or do you find a rationale that allows you go on in a healthy way?”

So for now, there are still no plans for a memorial or plaque for Marysville. But that’s OK. As the year anniversary approached, Mayor Nehring consulted with Patricia Llodra of Newtown for advice.

“She advised us not to rush into that,” he says. “Sometimes memorials can bring more strife and division if they’re not done properly. So, you know… maybe next year.”

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