MARYSVILLE — He’s been through a lot here.
But this might be the last year Chris Sutherland watches over Marysville Pilchuck High School. He’s been the school’s resource officer for about six years, the length of his contract.
He was one of the first people to enter the cafeteria after the shootings on Oct. 24, 2014. Four years later, the freshman class from that day graduated. Sutherland spoke during their commencement ceremony.
“You are all my heroes,” he told them, pausing at times to hold back tears.
Sutherland knows the campus well. It is where he met his future wife and graduated, and it’s where he hopes to stay for many years to come.
He and his best friend, Jeremy Wood, have started giving presentations about mental health. Both are 44. They’ve known each other for more than 20 years. Wood is the resource officer at Marysville Getchell High School. Their organization, called Brothers in Healing, is separate from their careers at the Marysville Police Department.
They both talk about being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and how they found help. They initially spoke together this summer at a statewide convention for school resource officers, and they plan to share their stories at a national conference in July 2019 in Las Vegas.
They also have a nonprofit called Bigger Than Us, and hope to help people with PTSD pay for therapy.
Sutherland and Wood have talked to audiences in the past about suicide prevention and bullying in schools. While they plan to keep working on that, the focus has shifted.
They discuss the topics separately, although they’re related in some ways. They hope people in both situations get help when they need it. They certainly have.
Both officers have been going to counseling for years.
“The way it used to be is that it’s a weakness to see a psychologist, because you’re supposed to be strong enough to do your job,” Sutherland said. “We all need it. No one is too strong to see a mental health professional.”
Wood spent nearly half of his 21 years with the Marysville Police Department on the SWAT team. He was called to a situation across the street from what is now Totem Middle School one morning in February 2007.
About a dozen officers were in a standoff with a man who was armed and threatening to kill himself and his girlfriend. Negotiators told the man to drop his rifle. He fired instead. Wood and a fellow officer shot at him from different directions. The suspect was killed.
“When you love people and care about people, it’s hard to make that decision. It’s difficult,” Wood said. “And it stays with you.”
Wood was put on leave. The day he came back to work he was called to someone’s home. The man who lived there said he was having suicidal thoughts and was holding what looked like a firearm. He eventually let go of the weapon, which ended up being an airsoft gun.
Wood felt the same emotions as he had before, in the previous incident. When he got home that day, he fell asleep still wearing his uniform.
Months later, he was trying to arrest a man who was fighting with two sheriff’s deputies. The man had a combination of drugs in his system. His heart stopped during the struggle, while Wood was holding him.
“When you have your hands on somebody and you feel that energy leave their body, it’s a feeling you just can’t get past,” Wood said.
Wood shared his experiences publicly for the first time this summer.
When he talks about everything that happened that year, the events play back in his head. He counts to five and back down to comfort himself. He’s learned those sorts of tools from counselors he has worked with over the past five years or so. He met with about 10 specialists before he found the right fit.
Wood finds value in speaking with young people who might need help dealing with trauma. Some students he’s known moved to his school from Marysville Pilchuck after the shootings.
Wood and Sutherland both graduated from high school in 1992 — Wood from Sultan; Sutherland from Marysville Pilchuck. Sutherland met his wife during a speech class there. He became the school’s resource officer during the spring of 2013.
“I joke with the kids. I go, ‘Look, I owned this school before you guys were even born,’” he said.
He played basketball when he was a Tomahawk and is now a volunteer coach. He’s earned nicknames such as “Coach Suth” and “Sleeves,” for the tattoos covering both his arms and part of his neck.
He has used his role as a way to connect with students.
“I just like trying to be the person that helps change the perception of police with the kids every day, by trying to show them we’re normal people,” he said.
Although his tenure is almost up, Sutherland hopes to stay for many more years. He’s not sure yet whether his contract will be renewed.
He begins most mornings watching the buses as they pull up. He walks around campus a few times during the day and says hello to students by name as they’re heading to class.
He tries to make it to the cafeteria for every lunch period.
On Oct. 24, 2014, nearly four years ago now, he was helping a student who had gotten into a car crash that morning. He missed the beginning of lunch.
He was called to the front office around 10:30 a.m. Someone pulled a fire alarm as he was on his way. Kids were running and screaming. People were trying to talk to him over his radio, but there was too much noise to hear.
It wasn’t until he got inside the office that he could make out what was being reported: A shooting in the cafeteria.
Sutherland ran across the courtyard and scanned the room. He saw a teacher on the phone with 911, standing near the victims. He told her to hide.
Many of those details he’s learned from others’ reports. He doesn’t remember much from that morning or the following weeks.
Wood came to visit him a couple days later.
“He just describes me as answering the door and I was just ghost white, looking right through him,” Sutherland said. “To this day I don’t remember him coming to my house.”
People tied red and white ribbons around many of the trees in Marysville, and placed letters, flowers and balloons on the fence in front of the school.
For Sutherland, it was a reminder. He would break down whenever he drove around town.
“I didn’t realize at the time there was nothing I could do about it,” he said. “I did blame myself for not stopping it.”
Classes at Marysville Pilchuck resumed about a week later. Around that time Sutherland and others got together to debrief. He found his counselor during that meeting.
Later, Sutherland was asked to speak about the shootings at the state school resource officer convention that summer. He initially said no, but changed his mind.
“I started thinking, well you know, if it helps somebody,” he said. “So I did.”
He and Marysville Pilchuck’s security supervisor, Anne Carlson, went together. They took over for each other when one needed a moment to cry. Carlson had been right behind Sutherland when he walked into the cafeteria that day.
Talking about it has become easier over time.
Principal David Rose asked Sutherland to speak during graduation this June. An empty chair was placed at the front to remember the young lives who were lost in 2014.
Sutherland’s name wasn’t included in the commencement schedule, so his speech was a surprise to most in the room. He considers it one of the most important tasks he’s ever been asked to do.
“That was very incredible, and very hard with that seat up there and you knew those kids,” Sutherland said. “I just hope I did them honorably by speaking from my heart, and the whole class.”
Everyone stood and clapped when he was finished. He tried not to look up at the crowd as he walked back to his seat.
Sutherland’s wife framed a copy of the speech along with a picture of him wearing a shirt with “#MPSTRONG” printed on the back. He keeps it on the wall in his office.
Stephanie Davey: 425-339-3192; email@example.com; Twitter: @stephrdavey.
The Snohomish County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness provides resources for people who are living with mental illness. For more information, call 425-339-3620 or visit www.namisnohomishcounty.org.
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