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Red Lake prepares for school opening amid concerns over attendance, lawsuits

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Red Lake School Superintendent Stuart Desjarlait says he's looking forward to the start of classes Sept. 1. He says students he's talked to are anxious to get back to school. Desjarlait says there are some black clouds hanging over the district, including the ongoing federal investigation into the March 21 shootings and the possibility the district may face lawsuits related to the incident. (MPR photo/Tom Robertson)
School administrators at Red Lake say there are a number of issues swirling around the district as it prepares to resume classes next month. There's still an ongoing investigation into the school shootings last March. Officials say the district will likely be the target of lawsuits related to the shootings. There are also worries that some students might not come back to school.

Red Lake, Minn. — Many Red Lake teachers used the summer months to heal from the trauma of the school shootings. Some sought help from mental health professionals. Now, teachers are turning their sights on getting back to work.

Dean Carlblom, a representative of the teachers union, Education Minnesota, says teachers are anxious to get back into the classroom. He says they're also a little nervous, too.

"I think it would be fair to say that there's some apprehension, obviously," said Carlblom. "There are a lot of questions and concerns. Most of their questions and concerns are the questions and concerns that the entire community has, about security, about the opening of school, about the reaction of students."

The Red Lake School Board approved a security plan just this week. Details will be released to the community at 1 p.m. Monday at Red Lake Elementary School. The plan will include two armed guards posted at the middle and high schools. It will also include an electronic card access system for staff members at all schools in the district.

Vicki Hawkins, a special education teacher at the high school, says she wants to hear details of the plan, but she says security hasn't been a big concern for her.

"As far as I'm concerned, the school was as safe as it could possibly be at the time of the incident, and to me it's still safe," said Hawkins.

School security is just one of the issues school administrators have been dealing with this summer. Superintendent Stuart Desjarlait says there are a number of black clouds hanging over the district. One of his biggest concerns is potential lawsuits. Desjarlait says nothing has been filed yet, but he's certain it's only a matter of time.

"When you see 10 lawyers walk into the high school, you know, with notepads and everything, you know there's something going on," Desjarlait said. "They're not there for tea."

Desjarlait says it's likely that families of some of the shooting victims will pursue lawsuits. Minnesota Public Radio has learned that a group of teachers is also planning a suit. A Bemidji attorney involved in the suit says it will likely be filed within the next 90 days. The attorney declined to speak publicly or provide details. But he said the suit involves issues of workers compensation and civil liability.

Desjarlait says the other cloud hanging over the district is the uncertainty surrounding the federal investigation into the shootings. The FBI and federal prosecutors have been publicly silent about the status of the investigation. So far, only one person has been charged.

Louis Jourdain, 17, the son of the tribal chairman, appeared last month in a closed hearing in St. Paul. Authorities have refused to talk about Jourdain's case because he's a juvenile.

When you see 10 lawyers walk into the high school, you know, with notepads and everything, you know there's something going on. They're not there for tea.
- Stuart Desjarlait

Desjarlait says it's unclear whether there will be more arrests. The school district is still conducting its own investigation. Desjarlait says the FBI still has dozens of the district's computers that were confiscated after the shootings.

"It would be nice if we were able to sit down with the federal investigators and say 'OK, what do you have?'" said Desjarlait. "'Here's what we have. Can we share?' But we're doing ours on our own, without any input from the feds, you know, from the FBI."

Desjarlait has other more personal troubles to deal with. There are apparently two no-confidence petitions floating around the reservation calling for Desjarlait's ouster. Desjarlait says one of the petitions originated among teachers. He believes the other is being distributed by community members.

Several people involved with the petitions did not return phone calls for this story.

Jodie Beaulieu is a member of the Red Lake School Board. Beaulieu says she's seen both petitions but declined to comment on them. Beaulieu says the school board was supposed to evaluate the superintendent's performance last spring, but so far that hasn't happened.

"I need to follow up on that and bring it to the forefront, not only based on the petitions that are out there and the teachers signing the vote of no-confidence, but as a responsibility that we have for serving our community on the Red Lake School Board," said Beaulieu.

Desjarlait says he's proud of his accomplishments on the job. He says he believes he's being made the scapegoat. Desjarlait says the petitions are an irrational reaction to emotions and frustrations that resulted from the shootings.

"If this group wants to continue to ask for my resignation, you know, I'll meet with them and put everything I've done on the table, and let the board decide," he said. "I will not go down without a fight, I guarantee that, because I've done nothing wrong. I am not responsible for what happened March 21."

The shootings have prompted a growing discussion of the state of education at Red Lake. The district has been plagued with low test scores, a high drop-out rate and problems with discipline and truancy. Tribal member Joe Johnson of Redby was one of dozens of people who attended an education summit this summer.

Johnson says no one person is to blame for the district's problems. He says the problems are much more complex. Johnson says the shootings may have been a catalyst for change.

"Maybe this incident was the proverbial two-by-four that people needed to get hit upside the head with," said Johnson. "And now, because of that, people are talking."

The Red Lake Tribe has since held a series of meetings on how to improve education. The tribe has asked the Minnesota Department of Education to do a comprehensive assessment of the school district's curriculum and programs.

Desjarlait says there's no need for such an assessment. Desjarlait says he's glad more people are taking an interest in education. But he says there's no need to reinvent the wheel.

"We have been changing things," said Desjarlait. "We have been changing things the last two and a half years. It's not you know, that we've just sat at the table and not done anything. And when you look at the education summit, that first meeting, my God! The school was the villain. My gosh, what's going on here."

Beaulieu says she's glad the state is taking a look at Red Lake's system. She says one of the district's biggest problems is a lack of parental and community involvement.

"Let's start visioning a positive future," said Beaulieu. "Let's articulate what that's going to be for the next generation. Let's get a unifying theme of where we're all heading. That's what I believe will pull us all together."

For the immediate future, Beaulieu and others are most concerned about getting kids back in school this fall. Last spring, two-thirds of students stayed away after the shootings.

Now, there's worry that open enrollment could lead to a big drain on attendance at Red Lake. Neighboring school districts -- including Bemidji, Clearbrook, Blackduck and Kelliher -- have agreed to accept students who refuse to return to Red Lake schools. Education Minnesota representative Dean Carlblom says returning teachers are worried there may be lots of empty chairs in their classrooms.

"I think that's the $64,000 question," said Carlblom. "I think that's the question that everyone is asking. And I don't know that anybody is honestly going to have a handle on that one until school actually opens."

Red Lake administrators say they didn't enforce attendance policies after the shootings last spring. They say now students who don't go to school will be turned over to tribal truancy court. Teachers and community members will go door-to-door later this month to encourage kids to come back. School in Red Lake starts Sept. 1.

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