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Red Lake schools returning to normalcy amid tighter security

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Acting Red Lake School Superintendent Carol Aenne says more security has been added this week in response to rumors surrounding the sixth anniversary of the Columbine shootings, and the one-month mark for the Red Lake shootings. (MPR photo/Tom Robertson)
It's a week of important dates at Red Lake High School. Tuesday was the sixth anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. Wednesday will be one month since a Red Lake student shot and killed nine people before killing himself. The anniversaries have sparked rumors and fueled tensions in a community that's already on edge. But school officials are determined to move forward.

Bemidji, Minn. — The Columbine shootings happened on another infamous historic date -- April 20, which is the birthday of Adolf Hitler. People who knew Red Lake gunman Jeff Weise say he was fascinated by Hitler and by Nazi ideals.

Reports that surfaced in the days following the shootings showed Weise submitted postings on neo-Nazi Web sites. Those reports trouble Red Lake school officials. This week's anniversaries have them worried about security.

"We're dealing with it," said acting superintendent Carol Aenne. "The local law enforcement is addressing it. They're taking extra precautions all this week."

Those precautions mean extra security guards on duty this week at each of the schools in Red Lake. Staff have been asked to be more alert, and extra cautious about keeping classroom doors closed and locked during instruction.

Aenne says community members are hungry for information from federal investigators. Media reports of possible co-conspirators have led to speculation about what may happen next.

She went back a couple days. She thought she was going to be OK with it. But once she entered the building, it was another story.
- Yvonne Johnson, speaking of her granddaughter

"It's rumors," Aenne said. "And rumors do weigh heavy on, especially on the students. Staff tries to take it with a grain of salt. But there's still concern. And there's no closure because the investigation is still ongoing."

Little is known about the status of the investigation. On Monday, U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger expressed anger over false information being leaked to the media. But he declined to say which reports were false. Heffelfinger said the reports are fueling fears and suspicions on the reservation.

Aenne says despite a sense of uncertainty, students are beginning to settle back into a routine at the high school. Attendance numbers are growing, but two-thirds of students haven't returned. Aenne says it's hard to predict when students and staff will be ready to move back to a full-day schedule.

"The students that I did see seemed to be happy to be there," she said. "The staff is working hard. They find that the half-days are just as exhausting, at this point, after what happened on March 21, as a full day had been before."

This is a transition week at the school. Their first week back, students were allowed to come and go as they please. There was little focus on school work. Carol Aenne says that's changing.

"They're moving toward more academics now," said Aenne. "Many students have voiced their concerns that they want to get back into the routine they had before as much as possible. And so one might conclude that the students who are coming to school are there to learn, and want to get back to the studies."

At the beginning of the week, just over 100 students had returned to class. Aenne says being in school is especially important for seniors who need classroom credits to graduate. The district has been given waivers on standardized testing for lower grades.

But seniors who haven't passed the state's basic skills test must do so to graduate. That test was supposed to be given last week. But the state gave the district a break. It's now scheduled for the week of May 9.

Daily activities at the high school are far from normal. One portion of the school, where the shootings occurred, is still shut down. As a result, there's a shortage of classrooms. That's forced teachers to share rooms and take a team approach to instruction.

Teachers are also keeping a close eye on the mental health of students. Aenne says each student is handling the trauma of the shootings differently. She says some students may not have shed any tears yet. But she expects their time will come.

"A person can feel like they're all together and just fine, and then all of the sudden something will happen and they realize they need some help," said Aenne. "And that can be the first day back to school, or it could be the end of May for some of these individuals. And that's our responsibility, to monitor that."

Perhaps the district's biggest concern is what to do about the 200 or so students who have not returned to school. Aenne says the plan is to hire teachers who will visit students at their homes. It's an extension of a program the district already had in place, where homebound students get their class work from a visiting teacher.

"We're developing lists of students who haven't shown up, and contacting the parents," she said. "And if the parents put it in writing that they want homebound services for their students, it will be provided. They won't be just out there."

Some tribal members are already showing interest in the homebound program. Yvonne Johnson has several grandchildren in high school. Johnson says one of her granddaughters has had a tough time going back.

"She went back a couple days," said Johnson. "She ... thought she was going to be OK with it. But once she entered the building, you know, it was another story. It was like ... in her own mind, she could hear the kids screaming and crying and things like that."

For students still struggling with the shooting, homebound instruction gives them a way to keep up with their work. Johnson says for her grandkids, it's less about feeling safe in school and more about dealing with their trauma.

"They feel pretty safe now, you know, with more security there," said Johnson. "I think it's just the memory of the whole thing. I don't want to be pushing them either, saying, 'Hey, get over it.' It doesn't happen that way."

Acting superintendent Carol Aenne says security is an issue for some parents. She says a steady flow of rumors hasn't helped. Aenne brushes off suggestions that the shootings will contribute to an already high dropout rate at Red Lake High. She says it's too soon to talk about that.

"Because a parent may be concerned about the safety, that's not necessarily dropping out," Aenne said. "That's just keeping their child home until they feel that it is safe. And it's up to the district and the local law enforcement to help these parents and students to begin to believe in the safety that we have."

The past few weeks have been emotionally and physically exhausting for Carol Aenne. She's says she's been too busy to sit down and process her own grief. Aenne says she doesn't necessarily want to at this point.

Aenne is filling in for Superintendent Stuart Dejarlait, who took a leave from the job two weeks ago to deal with health issues. Dejarleit is expected to return to work Monday.