It’s been a year since a troubled teenager twice fired a gun into the crowded commons area at North Thurston High School in Lacey.
But even without casualties such as those experienced at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Snohomish County or Umqua Community College in Oregon, the April 27, 2015, incident shook the 1,450-student school and the larger South Sound community.
“It was the panic without the loss,” said Jesus Villahermosa Jr., president of the Gig Harbor-based Crisis Reality Training. He led active shooter response trainings for schools in Olympia and North Thurston last fall.
“At that moment, he fires the round, how do you know that he’s not going to bring the weapon down and kill you?” Villahermosa said.
North Thurston principal Steve Rood wouldn’t permit media access for interviews and photos, stating that students, faculty and staff members are trying to move forward and heal, and attention for the one-year anniversary could take away from that.
But Rood issued a statement that in part said: “The actions of one student, on one day last April may have challenged us, but I’m pleased to report that we have only become a stronger and more closely knit, caring school community. We still do lockdown drills, and our new construction will include more safety features and upgraded technology, but our focus remains on the students, the learning and taking care of each other.”
It was the panic without the loss. At that moment, he fires the round, how do you know that he’s not going to bring the weapon down and kill you?
Jesus Villahermosa Jr., president of Crisis Reality Training
Meanwhile, the teen who fired the shots, who is not named in The Olympian because he’s a minor, pleaded guilty in October to 14 charges — 12 felonies and two misdemeanors — in Thurston County Juvenile Court. He was sentenced to serve 2 1/2 to three years in a juvenile rehabilitation facility, which will include mental health treatment.
At the hearing, he apologized to North Thurston Public Schools officials for his actions.
“All I can do is accept the consequences of my mistakes and learn from what I did,” he said.
The teen had attended North Thurston for only about a month. But in that short time, he said he’d been called derogatory names and bullied by other students.
He told police he had no intention of hurting anybody else in the commons that morning.
“He wanted to do suicide by cop,” said Villahermosa, a retired Pierce County Sheriff’s deputy and SWAT team member.
According to police, court and school district documents obtained by The Olympian through public records requests, the teen had a long history of mental health issues and acting out. Included in that history:
▪ He had attempted suicide at least twice, and had been “in and out of a mental hospital,” according to his mother.
He told police he had been depressed and suicidal and had been seeing a therapist.
He said he had tried to hang himself at age 14 and had tried to slit his wrists a couple of times.
“It didn’t work out for the best,” he told a detective.
▪ He had been expelled from Mount Rainier High School in the Highline School District in Des Moines after sending a peer a text indicating that he wished to kill one of his teachers.
▪ He had “challenging” elementary school years and was first suspended in fourth grade for fighting. His dad estimated that the boy was suspended at least 10 other times, mostly due to fights, incidents in which the boy said he had been picked on by other kids.
He also was diagnosed as bipolar and ADD/ADHD in the fifth grade.
▪ He had a criminal history, including pending cases in King County for allegedly molesting three different female students, and a pending case in Alabama in which he was charged with third-degree assault and disorderly conduct after pushing or throwing a desk at a fellow student.
North Thurston High School’s Student Resource Officer Ed McClanahan was introduced to the student his first day on campus by the student’s probation officer, but McClanahan did not know why the student was on probation.
"Regarding the student in question, North Thurston High School knew of some past disciplinary issues and the fact he was on probation. Under state law, however, he still had a right to be in school,” North Thurston Public Schools’ spokeswoman Courtney Schrieve said when asked what the district knew about the student’s background when he enrolled.
THE DAY THAT ROCKED NORTH THURSTON
The teen said he moved from Alabama to Washington because his dad wanted a new life and to keep him out of juvenile detention.
He told police he had been bullied at every school he’s attended. At North Thurston, he told police that he had been called derogatory names and told he should move back to the South.
On April 27, the teen skated on a long board from his apartment complex to the school bus stop, where he smoked a couple of cigarettes. Once he got on the bus, he said he began talking to a friend like it was a normal day.
He arrived on campus at about 7:20 a.m. He went to the pit, an area next to campus where students smoke. He gave away all of his cigarettes. Then, he gave his skateboard to another student, who said he assumed the teen had either given up skating or got a new one.
After that, the teen lit a cigarette, walked up the stairwell and fired a shot into the ceiling. At 7:24 a.m., assistant principal Dan Coleman called 911 from the school office, reporting that there was a shooting on the campus. Multiple 911 calls came in during the minutes that followed.
After firing a round while in the stairwell, the student “came into the commons, down the stairwell, with his cigarette in his left hand and the .357 caliber magnum revolver in his right hand pointed at the ceiling,” according to documents. Then the student fired another round that went through the roof of the commons.
The student was tackled by civics and government teacher Brady Olson. McClanahan removed the weapon from the student’s hand with his foot, and handcuffed the student and took him into custody. At 7:33 a.m. McClanahan took the teen to a patrol car and read him his rights.
The teen asked the officer why he didn’t shoot him. Then the teen said he had planned on shooting himself, if he could have.
At the height of the incident, some students and staff members ran off campus. Some huddled in classrooms as the school went into lockdown.
“At least one student suffered injuries during the evacuation that include a broken tooth, a split lip and a black eye from being trampled by other students fleeing the shooter,” a search warrant stated.
Some students sought refuge at nearby businesses, others fanned out into the surrounding neighborhoods.
“I had kids coming to my house; they came knocking on my door,” North Thurston School Board member Dave Newkirk, 41, who lives across the street from the school, told The Olympian. “The look on their faces was just terrifying.”
The teen told police that he bought the handgun for $250 from somebody he didn’t know.
Just before 10 a.m., police arrived at the student’s home to execute a search warrant. The boy’s father told police he knew why they were there.
According to the investigator’s report: “(The father) stated he received an alert from the North Thurston School District advising that there had been a school shooting. (He) said he immediately checked his dresser sock drawer where he stores his firearm and discovered that it was missing. (He) said that he was missing a black .357 Magnum revolver.”
When police asked the father why he thought his son was the person involved in the shooting, he said because the boy “has had issues in the past.”
THE AFTERMATH: LESSONS LEARNED
In the days and weeks that followed the incident, there were parent meetings, an outpouring of support for teacher-turned-hero Olson, and support from other schools.
River Ridge High School graduate JaLyn Anderson, 18, said students at her former school wore purple to show solidarity for the students at North Thurston.
“It’s like a big family, so even though we might be rivals at football and stuff, when it comes to serious matters, we’ll be worried about each other,” she said.
The school district already had plans to beef up its security, thanks to voters approving a 20-year, $175 million bond in 2014 to build new schools and make technology and safety upgrades around the district. It will soon begin installing about 650 new video cameras in all of its schools and buildings. It’s also investing in a new system of two-way radios for all of its sites.
“It’s going to improve our districtwide communication on a daily basis,” director of schools safety Rich Yelenich said of the radio system. “But also (prepare staff) in the event of a large-scale incident or significant incident in the district.”
Spokeswoman Schrieve said there’s a heightened awareness about school safety since last year’s event. She said students and staff — and parents — seem to take lockdown drills more seriously.
Yelenich said there haven’t been any major changes with the district’s overall safety plan, but officials have done “fine-tuning” on some procedures and protocols.
Just getting the staff to think about, ‘What do you have available in your room to use (as a weapon)? How do we deal with students who have special needs or staff with medical needs? All these little things we haven’t really thought about before.
Det. Charles Liska, the School Resource Officer for the Tumwater School District, on training teachers and other staff members on the “run, hide, fight” protocol for active shooter events
For example, the family reunification system — helping parents find their students in an emergency — is something that had never been practiced before, and it didn’t go as smoothly as North Thurston officials would have hoped. Parents complained that traffic was bottlenecked in the area; school staff members said the process was hectic.
Officials in other South Sound districts, including Yelm, Olympia and Tumwater, say they drew lessons from that experience.
“We have also rewritten our emergency plan based on what we learned from NTHS to include revised parent reunification and evacuation procedures,” said Yelm High School principal Brian Wharton.
Det. Charles Liska, the School Resource Officer for the Tumwater School District, said he’s been focused on training teachers and other staff members on the “run, hide, fight” protocol for active shooter events.
“Just getting the staff to think about, ‘What do you have available in your room to use (as a weapon)? How do we deal with students who have special needs or staff with medical needs? All these little things we haven’t really thought about before,” Liska said.
Sean Shaughnessy, principal at Roosevelt Elementary School in Olympia, said his school is piloting a “Level 2 emergency plan,” which is what they’d use during a major disaster or shooting incident. He volunteered for the project, which has included extra emergency drills for his staff and a safety night for families.
Later this month, about 40 families are going to be part of the school’s practice reunification system. Shaughnessy said it’s been a lot of work to come up with a system that will help match parents up with their kids in a timely manner and still be flexible in the event there’s a need for “run, hide, fight.”
“It’s something that’s really important to me,” he said about the pilot project. “With everything that’s happened, I think I personally want to make sure I’m ready. And I knew I wasn’t.”
North Thurston officials say they’ll continue to practice for emergencies too.
“It’s not one of those ‘Well, gosh, if it ever happens things,’ ” Yelenich said. “We know, we know how serious this is, and we know how important it is to continue the training and the conversations.”
What North Thurston staff had to say about the incident
North Thurston Public Schools asked teachers and staff members to provide comments on the April 27, 2015, incident at North Thurston High School in Lacey, as part of the debriefing process. The Olympian obtained those documents through a public records request. Here’s a sampling of the comments:
▪ “I still do not understand why student privacy trumps teacher notification of students — it would be much easier for us to keep our eyes on troubled students if we were aware. I do not believe staff would ever target kids punitively who have experienced some troubles. I feel like we are left in the dark.”
▪ “Some rooms had just a para(educator) or sub in them. These folks seemed clueless. The students were telling the adults in the room to turn off lights, etc. (kudos to the kids, shame on the paras and subs).”
▪ “When everyone else was sent home, the lunch ladies were sent to other schools after they’d just had a traumatic experience. Let ‘em help on the field, do something.”
▪ “During our lockdown, Lowe’s took our students in, took down names, allowed students to call their parents and checked identification when parents came to pick up students. Safeway, on the other hand, made an announcement over the intercom that students were to leave the store and gather together in the parking lot. … It seems there should be a dialogue between our school and nearby businesses on how to handle this situation if it does come up again.”
▪ “I wish I knew more about the ‘fight’ option to run-hide-fight. I’d like some training.”