A young high school student took a gun to school and shot five classmates before killing himself in Washington state on Friday. In a storyline that is becoming all too familiar, 14-year-old Jaylen Fryberg had been in a state of mental anguish over a break-up of his relationship and bullying, according to his parents. As an avid hunter, he had access to guns and apparently wrote threatening tweets on the popular social media website. Then something snapped and he entered the Marysville Pilchuck High School with the intent to kill. He injured four students with gunshot wounds to the head and killed one girl before committing suicide. While the grief and shock is still raw, this incident will soon be added to the long list of school shootings that America has experienced since Columbine and will be a part of the national debate on how to handle such violence. The Marysville school shooting is a tragedy that will have to be treated with care and compassion, but as more information gets reported it become clear that the case has disturbingly similar details to other shootings.
The facts of the shooting in Washington state are relatively vague at present. A thorough investigation and a completion of interviews by police will have to be finished before a complete narrative is assembled. But right now, the media has reported that Jaylen Fryberg, a student at Marysville Pilchuck High School entered the school’s cafeteria and approached a table with students sitting at it. He drew a handgun and shot five people from behind, his shots hitting all of them in the head. One of those, a girl who has yet to be identified, died of her injury. The other four were rushed to hospital and have been reported as in various stages of surgery and recovery. The last victim of the shooter was Jaylen himself, who committed suicide at the scene.
Fryberg’s motivation is unknown at this time, but his social media and the comments of his parents and classmates may offer some insight at this early stage. His parents said that he had been experiencing bullying at school and that his girlfriend had recently broke up with him. These factors may have contributed to why he decided to open fire on his classmates, a conclusion that is backed up by posts on his Twitter account. A tweet from the hours before the shooting reads, “It won’t last… It’ll never last…” There are some depressed and angry tweets from earlier in the year, one which threatens an unspecified person or persons should they anger Fryberg again. One talks directly of death, saying, “Might as well die now.” The initial impression of the shooter, then, is one of an angry young man who was in a frame of mind consistent with what people think of as a school shooter.
Out of that picture and probably any additional information regarding Fryberg, two main issues are immediately apparent. One is the role that bullying may have played in this tragedy. According to a study presented at a Pediatric Academic Society meeting, kids who experience bullying are more likely to bring a gun or other weapon to school than others. Kids who experience a range of mistreatment from their peers, including fights, threats and a range of other bullying behaviors, were considered as 50 times more likely to bring a gun to school. The connection between bullying and school shooters is clearly attested to by the data.
In the case of the Marysville shooting, that connection is disturbingly present, but there are other details that are similar to other school shootings, most importantly an access to guns. Fryberg was an avid hunter and had posted pictures of himself on Twitter with a variety of firearms. One tweet was a thank you to his parents, who had apparently bought him a gun as a gift. As a frequent hunter, his access to weapons made it easy to acquire one to go to school with. In part, at least, his access to weapons made the shooting possible.
Bullying and access to guns are the two issues that initially are the most pressing and obviously troubling about this story. For years there has been arguments over how to prevent deadly school shootings. The school district in which Marysville Pilchuck High School is situated has recently received a federal grant to improve its safety and mental health procedures. Such measures may be part of a solution, but there are more questions than just the role of schools. The role of parents is also in question. Since the parents of the Washington shooter provided him with weapons, that may become a point of contention. Many gun rights activists have supported training kids in gun safety and having them experience weapons in order to make them safer. In this case, it did just the opposite. That argument may wait until the pain has subsided a bit, but at the very least it illustrates at this early stage that looking for a one factor explanation to this school shooting simply is not enough.
How should people react to school shootings like this one? That is the question that needs to be answered now. Perhaps above all, the best course is to mourn, not only the loss of life of the innocent, but that of the shooter. Jaylen Fryberg also deserves sympathy for the anguish he experienced and for the fact that he felt that there was no other option than the one he took. In the aftermath, there will be plenty of time to argue about solutions. For now it is enough that the details of the Marysville shooting are disturbingly similar to those of other shootings and that they illustrate a problem still needing an answer.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury