New School Year Nears at Red Lake High

After fatal March shootings at Minnesota's Red Lake High School, most students did not return to class for the rest of the school year. As a new term begins, school officials address security concerns.

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Students head back to school this Thursday at the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. Just how many is an open question. Five months ago, the remote community was the sight of the nation's worst school shooting since Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris opened fire in Columbine, Colorado. As Minnesota Public Radio's Tom Robertson reports, the tribal community is still recovering from the trauma.

TOM ROBERTSON reporting:

The violent deaths of 10 people in a single day was hard for people to comprehend in this rural community of 7,000; so much, that there remains a palpable tension here. Preston Graves, who runs a small convenience store here, says since the shootings, many tribal members have found it difficult to escape that tension.

Mr. PRESTON GRAVES (Red Lake Resident): It's not the same. There's apprehension, a lot of uncertainty. It's not as calm and peaceful as you'd wish it to be. There's always that uncertainty, that you don't know what the final outcome is.

ROBERTSON: Part of that tension comes from an FBI investigation that's still ongoing. Investigators have released no information. One thing is certain: On March 21st, 16-year-old Jeff Weise killed his grandfather, who was a police officer, and his grandfather's companion. Weise stole weapons and a police cruiser, then drove to Red Lake High School where he killed a security guard, a teacher and five students before turning the gun on himself. Since then, there's been an arrest. Seventeen-year-old Louis Jourdain, the son of the tribal chairman, is suspected of helping Weise plan the shootings. Jourdain remains in custody, but because he's a juvenile, federal authorities will say nothing more.

Rumors persist here that other kids were involved in the conspiracy. That's fueled fears of more violence. Preston Graves is the father of two high school students who will go back to school when it resumes on Thursday, but he says many will likely stay home until the investigation is complete.

Mr. GRAVES: Once that's over, once it brings some resolution to the whole process, you know, the enrollment will rise.

ROBERTSON: Last spring, two-thirds of Red Lake High School students didn't return to school when it reopened. Dozens of students have already transferred to neighboring school districts. But high school junior Jim King is eager to get back to school, and he says most of his friends plan to join him. Still, King suspects that only half of the students will return to school this week.

JIM KING (Red Lake High School Student): I actually have, like, a few family members that don't know if they're going back or not, so--they just say, you know, that they can't face it again, that they don't feel safe.

ROBERTSON: Red Lake school officials say that they've tried to make students and teachers feel safe. A new security plan includes armed guards, tighter access to school buildings and a ban on backpacks. As staff gathered in a school gymnasium recently to hear details of the plan, social studies teacher Sheila Horn said she'll withhold judgment until she sees it firsthand.

Ms. SHEILA HORN (Red Lake High School Teacher): But I'm very cautious about encouraging other people to buy into the fact that it's all gonna be secure until I've actually been in it myself.

ROBERTSON: School Board Chairman Arnold Pemberton says school security has been the number-one concern in Red Lake. He says many here want to put March 21st behind them.

Mr. ARNOLD PEMBERTON (Red Lake School Board Chairman): We're gonna try to build and get back to normal and do the best we can to make everybody feel safe. That's the main thing. I don't--I'm hoping and praying nothing more will happen. I think we've had enough tragedy around for a while.

ROBERTSON: Mental health counselors have been available to students and teachers all summer. There have also been traditional healing ceremonies. Superintendent Stuart Desjarlait says he understands how hard it will be for some kids to go back into the school building. Desjarlait was there when the shootings occurred. He says he still suffers from post-traumatic stress. Some people criticized Desjarlait for taking a three-week medical leave of absence not long after the shootings.

Mr. STUART DESJARLAIT (Red Lake School Superintendent): Yes, I did leave the district. But right now if I didn't, I'd probably be sitting in a nut house somewhere. That's how bad it was. Couldn't sleep and crying and just shaking 'cause of what I saw. And to be one of the few superintendents in the United States to go through this, you know--in a way, I'm glad it's me because I don't wish this on no one else, man.

ROBERTSON: Classrooms where the shootings occurred have been blocked off to students. That section of the school is being remodeled into administrative offices. For NPR News, I'm Tom Robertson in Bemidji, Minnesota.

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